Are You Curating or Creating?

Every once in a while, a book proposal crosses my desk and catches my attention with its creativity and approach. It is engaging and makes me think.  Whether I agreed to work with the author or not, I needed to give them kudos for their great work.

Rarely, if ever, does something catch my attention (in a good way) which is simply assembled from or built entirely on the thinking of someone else.

I like authors who create rather than curate.

Textbooks are almost always curated information so students can grasp the salient points from multiple sources in a convenient collection. But commercial non-fiction of any kind, needs to be original thinking and not exclusively reacting to or responding to something else.

Sure, there is little or nothing new under the sun. It really can’t be said something is entirely new or unique, but a book proposal constructed completely by re-stating and organizing the thoughts of others is generally not something a publisher would like to see, unless it is a very specific project requiring it.

Make your own points. Create your own approach. Pave your own way.

Of course, authors of Christian-based non-fiction start and end with the foundation of scriptural principles, which are not new. In a sense, every Christian book is a curated list of Biblical truth, but successful non-fiction authors need to shed light on the truth in their own creative way.

Textbook writers are more curators than creators of content. Poets are at the other end of the creative spectrum. The continuum between them encompasses all authors, and everyone falls somewhere on it. Knowing where you fall is an important piece of self-awareness.

Often a writer is paid to work as a journalist, but maintains their creative equilibrium by writing poetry. Still, they never forget what pays the bills. Journalists can be creative, but for someone with creative “flair,” journalism can be limiting.

Thankfully, there are many, many plots on the line between textbook editor and poet, curator and creator.

For Christian authors, this discussion is the metaphorical “body of many parts,” found in scripture. Everyone is not an ear or an elbow. If everyone were an ear, how would they walk or talk?

There is a role for any good writer appearing anywhere on the line between curator and poet, but the proposals which catch the attention of an agent or publisher, are generally the ones more on the creative side of the line.

Any subject is best written with style. Certainly, there are times when we “just need the facts” without the creativity, but successful commercial non-fiction is almost always creative and engaging.

Far too many writers of non-fiction skip the creative aspect of the process and focus on information, attribution of quotes and explanations. It is as if they are saying, “If I can lecture you long enough, I will prove my point.”

Sounds like fun. I am more than happy to pay twenty dollars to be lectured at for three hundred pages.

While novelists are admonished to “show, don’t tell,” when writing their stories, I believe a similar goal is present for writers of non-fiction. But in their case, it is “show and tell.”

Most non-fiction readers know when they come across a good book. Their enjoyment is almost always related to the presence of appropriate and engaging stories, examples, parables and related experiences. A book which is a pure transfer of information has a purpose, but usually isn’t to entice someone to spend money on it, unless you really need a book on replacing the oil and air-filters in your 2009 Hyundai.

So, where do you fall on the line between a textbook author and poet? Every point has intrinsic value, but some might have more “commercial” value.

Successful writers of non-fiction generally strike a good balance of curation and creativity.


11 Responses to Are You Curating or Creating?

  1. Avatar
    Yurika Kotze January 23, 2018 at 4:26 am #

    Yes! This! Exactly this! You’ve pretty much summed up my non-fiction goals here…

  2. Avatar
    Kathy January 23, 2018 at 7:32 am #

    My first impression of the title was, am I sitting on, curating, preserving an unfinished work? and am I no longer creating anymore? Funny how our perspective draws us to something only to find it’s entirely different! Your title sent up another red flag (I get these all the time). I know stagnation is not the same thing as curation. Please pray for those of us who have already written our work in our heads and can’t seem to reach for paper and pencil to complete the work.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 23, 2018 at 7:44 am #

    A really good example of creative curating is Joseph Springer’s “Inferno”, the story of the USS Franklin’s ordeal by fire in March of 1945.

    He used the words of the survivours, those teenagers who survived to grow old, organizing their individual stories into a mighty choir, and bridging their individual narratives with spare and self-effacing prose that made him seem but a swiveling spotlight, going from one survivour to the next…but Springer is so much more. He’s not the light; he’s it’s guiding hand and empathetic heart.

    It’s a bit like Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series; there is one great stone edifice, but Claude Monet brought its facets to life as they played with the moving sun, turning gravitas into joy and meaning.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow January 23, 2018 at 7:56 am #

      I couldn’t explain it better!

      Seriously, I couldn’t…don’t have those words in my head.


  4. Avatar
    Jaime January 23, 2018 at 8:26 am #

    When I was taking a non-fiction writing class, the professor was explaining the rhythm writers need to find between abstract and concrete, to make the ‘concepts’ interesting to the reader and easy for them to grasp. I had a picture in my head of balloons, representing the concepts, and the writer was tying weights to the bottom of the strings, so the readers could reach them. Our job, especially with non-fiction designed to teach, is to add weight to concepts, using stories and parables, in order for them to be easy to take in and understand.

    Sorry for the weird word-picture, but that’s how I see the need to be creative in an area that has the potential to be boring to both author and reader.

    Or, maybe I’ve been spending too much time with my kids and can’t think much past balloons.

    Great reminder, Dan!

  5. Avatar
    Carol Ashby January 23, 2018 at 9:58 am #

    A truly creative writer can’t resist inserting that spark into even the most serious tome. Morrison and Boyd, who wrote the classic organic textbook used at almost every American college for decades, are a case in point.

    Anytime there are 4 different things bound in a tetrahedral arrangement to a carbon atom, as in almost all of the >100,000 different molecules in a living (or dead) cell, there are two mirror-image arrangements, like your left and right hand. In a test tube or “primordial soup,” they react identically because they have identical energy, but they rotate polarized light in two different directions because they can’t be superimposed, no matter how you turn them. The identical energy gives a 50/50 mix of the two in test-tube or soup reactions.

    This is the basis for a 5-minute scientific proof that life couldn’t have started by accident since only one of the two forms is found for the amino acids that make up your proteins and only one of the two forms is found in the sugars in your body, including the sugars that form the backbone of the chains of your DNA. The odds of that happening by accident are 1/2^n. That’s 1 divided by as many 2’s as there are amino acids in a protein or sugars in a set of chromosomes. That’s 1/3,000,000,000 for human DNA, and 1 divided by 3 billion is statistically zero.

    Dry topic, but M&B didn’t leave it so. I quote from their chapter on these molecules: “We must remember that everything (except, of course, a vampire) has a mirror image, including all molecules. Most molecules, however are superimposable on their mirror images, as for example bromochloromethane, and do not show this mirror-image isomerism.”

  6. Dan Balow
    Dan Balow January 23, 2018 at 10:20 am #

    That settles it. I am way out of my league with readers of this blog. I am going to stick to making suggestions to grow your marketing platforms.


    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby January 23, 2018 at 10:37 am #

      Oooh! Eagerly looking forward to that, Dan! That’s some of the most exciting information you could give us. Well, maybe not exciting, but certainly among the most useful. Plus you do it so creatively.

    • Avatar
      Rebekah Love Dorris January 23, 2018 at 10:54 am #

      No kidding, Dan. It says a lot about your agency that the comment quality’s about as tantalizing as the posts. Pretty neat, everybody’s particular flavor. And please, keep up your insightful posts. Not everybody’s an ear, elbow, an Ashby, or a Budek-Schmeisser, and if the Balow hadn’t spoken, where would the comments be? 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 23, 2018 at 11:11 am #

    Dan, this was an outstanding blog today. Thank you so much for your insight so beautifully expressed.
    I was once thinking about being a textbook writer but decided it would be more fun to tantalize my readers with an interesting story instead of having readers who were forced to read my work.

  8. Avatar
    Vanessa Burton January 23, 2018 at 12:51 pm #

    Wonderful post! It is difficult for non-fiction to be exciting, but there are authors who have accomplished it! Thank you for encouraging authors to make their own points and path!

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