Did you know that as an author, you can change people’s lives without even writing a book?
Believe it or not, most life-changing writing happens outside of a traditional printed book. But there is often less glory for the writer in those other kinds of writing.
If your primary goal is to write words that change lives, you can expand your role as a writer.
How do you find opportunities to write and expand your impact?
I recently interviewed Les Stobbe to find out. Les has 65 years of active experience in the Christian publishing industry, and he’s written about it in his book, God Moments in My Publishing Life. He’s also written articles, Sunday school curriculum, and books. In addition, he’s managed two bookstores, served as the editorial director at three different publishers and worked as a literary agent for 25 years.
Thomas Umstattd Jr.: Authors are writers first. Authors write books, but writers write all kinds of things. My own articles have had a bigger impact on the world than my books.
Many writers don’t realize that Sunday school curriculum is one of the largest sectors of the publishing industry.
In terms of revenue, textbooks and school curriculum are just as big if not bigger than all trade publications. That’s partly because college textbooks are insanely expensive, but it’s also because so much curriculum is published and consumed.
Christian writers have the unique opportunity to explore the world of writing Sunday school curriculum.
If a writer wants to write Sunday school curriculum, where should they begin?
Leslie Stobbe (Les): First, you have to be a good writer. You can’t learn on the fly when you’re trying to work at that level. Second, you have to study what the publisher does and how they do it because they’re not going to give you an assignment if you are unaware of what they do.
If you have good writing skills and are familiar with the kind of material they publish, you can call the Sunday school department of a publishing company like David C. Cook. Ask if they need anybody to write for any areas in their curriculum development. They have many pieces that need to be written, but you must inquire.
How do I learn to write Sunday school curriculum?
Thomas: How do you learn how to write curriculum well?
Les: First, you need to be able to teach it in one way or another. Over the years, I’ve taught nine-year-old boys, junior high, young adult, and adult Sunday school classes. Each age group has its own material. As I taught it, I developed insight into it.
As writers, we must realize that we are communicators. We don’t become good communicators by sitting at home and writing. We have to get out and be where the market is. That’s especially true when you’re writing curriculum.
Thomas: When you’re making a case for something, you’re trying to inform your reader.
If you haven’t already taught the subject in a live setting, it’s hard to present it cold. When you present your material to real people in a live setting, you get a feel for whether you were clear, boring, or making sense.
If you’re looking at your audience while you’re presenting, you can see the moment you start to lose their attention. You can tell when listeners start to get bored. After your presentation, you can go back and tweak it.
You can also find out if your jokes are funny.
Les: I tell pastors that if they want to communicate to their people, they need to be leading a small group. If they’re only speaking from the pulpit and giving the message instead of interacting face-to-face with a small group, they’re going to miss out on a lot. Without that small group feedback and interaction, the pastor will be less effective than they think.
Thomas: If you’ve ever felt frustrated at church because they’re answering questions you’re not asking, you’ve experienced that disconnect.
I have felt that way from time to time. You don’t want your audience to feel that way. So as a communicator, writer, or pastor, you must interact with people and listen.
There’s a real shortage of listening in our society. People don’t want to listen to their political or theological enemies. Sometimes they don’t even want to listen to their friends.
But people desperately want to be heard. In our society, we’re shouting at each other because we don’t feel like we’re being heard.
Writers need to learn the art of listening.
How do you find out what questions and challenges your audience is facing?
Les: As a parent of a nine-year-old boy at that time, I was involved in the Christian Service Brigade group in our church. I sat with those boys as they worked on their projects and recited scripture. I got a feel for what they were dealing with.
When I managed the Moody bookstore, we had a lot of children from the surrounding neighborhoods come through our bookstore. They thought it was an interesting place to visit.
These were African-American kids, and I observed what they were interested in when they were in the store. When their parents came into the store in the evening, I observed they were buying Bibles and then going on to evening school.
I had no idea that ten years later, I would have an opportunity to write curriculum for inner-city junior high boys and girls. One of my friends told me there was a need for that kind of curriculum. At that point, I realized God had created a situation where I got to know this group of young people, and years later, I had an opportunity to write for them.
It boggled my mind. It was an amazing thing to understand and experience.
Thomas: You were able to observe their culture. There’s often a cultural difference between older adults like us and young people going through Sunday school curriculum.
Some churches have Sunday school curriculum for adults, and in that case, there’s no generational difference, but you still might have cultural differences.
If you want to write for a specific culture, you have to spend time with that culture. That applies to racial minorities as well as different age groups.
If you want to write for nine-year-olds, you need to know lots of nine-year-olds, not just your own children. You also can’t write for your nine-year-old self because the world is much different now than when you were nine.
Les: Last spring, I met a writer who wanted to be mentored. She sent me her material in advance, and when we met, I said, “You’re okay as a writer, but you’re trying to write for young people, and you’re over 70. You’re not even touching the needs of modern young people.
“If you want to write for them as a grandma, you need to listen to the kids. Discover what interests them and how they respond to the stimuli they’ve got.”
How do you write for various denominations?
Thomas: Denominational distinctions also have a tremendous impact on how you write curriculum. Most curriculum is purchased through denominational channels.
How do you write for various denominations?
Les: You begin by learning about the denomination.
In the 1990s, Scripture Press supplied one denomination that did not want the word “church” to appear in any of their curricula. They didn’t want to be labeled as a church. That meant I had to go through all the adult material and exchange the word “church” for the word they wanted to use.
It takes time to learn those things, but you can do it.
Thomas: We hold our denominational distinctives so tightly, and yet they’re often things that don’t seem like a big deal to people outside of our denominations.
For example, in the 1800s, there were 60-gallon Baptists and 100-gallon Baptists. There was a distinction about how many gallons of water you needed to have a proper baptism. It was something they fought about.
That seems silly to us now, but if you wanted to write curriculum for the 60-gallon Baptist denomination in the 1800s, you’d have to accommodate for that distinctive. If you didn’t, they would reject everything you had written for that denomination.
Les: If they stumble on one little point, they’ll reject the whole curriculum. If we want them to buy the material, it has to fit their perspective.
How do you find out what those denominational distinctions are?
Thomas: Is it possible to write for denominations outside of your own?
Les: You simply read and study the material that already exists for that denomination. Do your research. Read what you want to write.
Thomas: If possible, find somebody from that denomination, such as a pastor of a small church. Reach out and say, “Can I buy you lunch? I want to learn about your denomination.”
Most people are very passionate about their denomination. They picked it for a reason, and they like it. Pastors especially have a strongly held view of their denomination.
Don’t hide what you’re doing. Approach them as a fellow Christian and say, “I’m a writer. I want to be able to understand your denomination better.”
You can also check the references section at the bottom of a Wikipedia article about the denomination.
A Wikipedia article is good for surface information, but it’s great for providing reference information in the footnotes. That’s where you can find source material that will deepen your understanding.
You might read a single sentence in a Wikipedia article, but the footnote for that sentence will direct you to a whole book that will teach you more about that point.
Don’t underestimate the power of the references and further reading section on Wikipedia.
How do you write curriculum with core Christian commonalities in mind?
Thomas: Christian denominations also have a lot in common. So how do you write to that core, “mere Christianity,” as C.S. Lewis calls it?
Les: You must be willing to study the scripture and be familiar with the Bible. If you want to write in the Christian world, you need a broad knowledge of the Bible.
I’m teaching an adult class right now. I’ve done a lot of preaching through the years, and because of my background, related passages come to mind as I’m teaching. I can call other verses to mind because I’ve been reading those passages for years, and I might get a new insight every time I read or teach.
I strongly recommend a consistent, daily reading of scripture. You can simply read through a book of the Bible, or you can choose to read through the Bible from beginning to end. If you like the Psalms, you might start there. You’ll get a lot of good meaty stuff out of the Psalms.
You might read through the writings of the apostle Paul. He had a lot to say about life as a Christian, but he also experienced a lot of suffering. Paul reminds us of the resources we have in our savior, Jesus Christ. That reminder is especially helpful for people who are experiencing suffering.
Thomas: I was digging through some papers from college, and I found this quote from a guest speaker in my business class. He said, “If your output exceeds your input, your upkeep will be your downfall.”
He was speaking about business, but I think it applies in a spiritual context as well, especially as you’re writing curriculum and devotionals.
If a writer has a broad knowledge of scripture understands the curriculum parameters and the audience, what’s the next step?
Les: Prayer. Years ago, I was writing the journalism curriculum for Jerry Jenkins. I had about three months to write at least 30 lessons. Every morning, I sat down at my computer without anything open, and I’d say, “Lord, I need your direction today. I’m looking for your guidance. Where do I start? What do I emphasize?”
Day after day, he gave me the outline. Just like that, boom, the outline would be there, and then illustrations would pop into my mind, and I’d be writing away furiously. It was amazing.
What are some different ways to approach writing curriculum?
Thomas: Some curriculum goes through the Bible verse by verse. Other curriculum starts with questions people ask, and it answers those questions.
Sometimes the curriculum company or denomination provides a structure and gives you an assignment. They may want you to write a specific lesson on Psalm 23.
Walk us through the different ways to approach writing a curriculum.
Les: I knew a college-level student who was teaching for a Sunday meeting, and he had a good crowd. They were doing very well, but he was not happy with the resource material he had. He approached me as an agent at the time and said, “I’d like to write this kind of curriculum. Is there a market for it?”
I got him to write his material for that age group as a study guide, and Neff Press picked it up. One book turned into a second and third. The opportunities are right before our eyes, but sometimes you need to attend a writers conference to connect with the right people.
I strongly recommend attending a writers conference regularly because you can talk to different editors and agents. You can talk to old friends and make new friends. When you meet with all those people, you get new perspectives.
Thomas: This industry is built on relationships. When it comes to spiritual matters, your character is important. Publishers are interested in what you have to say, but they’re also interested in your credibility and character. Many editors want to get a feel for that.
Because of recent scandals, there is more scrutiny. Current readers also have a higher expectation of your conformity to a Christian life. If you want to speak to Christians, they expect you to be living a pretty clean Christian lifestyle.
If you have a big moral failure, no one will want to hear from you anymore.
That’s why publishers want to get to know you. They want to know how complicated or easy it will be to work with you.
If they meet you in person, they get a better sense of whether they can trust you, and the easiest place to meet is at a writers conference. Authors, editors, and publishers form relationships at conferences. A lot of friendships start at writers conferences.
Les: I spent 25 years as a literary agent working one-on-one with writers at conferences all over North America. As a writer myself, I could sense what writers were dealing with, and I could usually provide helpful hints quickly. Most agents can provide that kind of advice.
If a writer wants to create curriculum to go with their book, what steps should they take?
Les: First, run it through a small group yourself. You can get remarkable input from intelligent Christians in a small group. I’ve gotten wonderful feedback as I’ve led small groups.
Thomas: It’s like a beta test. We talk about having beta readers, which are your initial readers. You can also create a beta version of your curriculum. Then lead a small group through your curriculum to find out what questions they have and what interests them.
Then revise your companion curriculum or study guide based on the feedback you get from the small group.
Les: Over the years, I became skilled at writing study guides that appear at the end of a book. I’ve written study guides and curriculum for some very well-known people and publishers.
I had to read the material and know it thoroughly before I could write a study guide for it. I would often end up teaching the curriculum, and the interaction I received would give me a sense of where I was off-track. It helped me write study guides with a lot more verve.
Thomas: If I could summarize your message for writers in all the episodes we’ve recorded so far, it would be that the best writing comes out of a preexisting ministry to real people.
Many writers believe they’ll only have a ministry if they first write a book, but that’s backward. In ministering to others, you learn how to minister better, and you learn more about the kind of ministry people need.
What encouragement do you have for a writer who wants to start writing curriculum?
Les: First, I would encourage them to go to a writer’s conference and talk to an editor.
Second, read the material that you are writing for. Take your time to absorb it. Only as you read do you absorb the ideas in these lessons. They’re not written out of the blue. They come from writers who’ve experienced the faith walk that comes from really serving the Lord.
You can listen to this episode How to Expand Your Role as a Writer by Writing Sunday School Curriculum on Christian Publishing Show.