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Posted on Sep 10, 2018

What Is a Preface? Writing 101: Definition & Tips for Writers

A preface is an introductory passage written about a book by its author. It's often viewed as an apologia — which is not so much an apology as an explanation or defense of why the book exists. Because the preface is part of a book's front matter (the pages at the start of a book with Roman numeral page numbers), it’s often confused with the foreword and the introduction.

However, there are key differences between the three:

  • A preface is written by the author about the book and is separate from the body of the book (the pages with Arabic numbers),
  • An introduction is written by the author about the subject of the book and is part of the body,
  • And a foreword isn’t even written by the author! It's separate from the body, and written by an expert in the field who adds credibility to the subject of the book.

In this post, we'll cover all three in more detail to help you figure out how best to introduce your own book.

Why use a preface?

For an author, the preface presents the opportunity to introduce yourself, the book, and any previous projects or experiences that might have informed it. Prefaces are your chance to tell the book’s story — the story of how it went from a thought in your head to a book in our hands.

Prefaces are most common in nonfiction (prologues are more popular for fiction books). However, they are present in both. They enable you to speak directly about:

  • What you’ve created,
  • How you created it, and
  • Why it’s important — or why you specifically are qualified to write about it.

Many authors will even sign the end of a preface, date it, and list the location from which they wrote it (rounding out the who, when, and where of it all), like Mark Twain did below:

huck finn preface by mark twain
(source: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)

More cynically, the preface is a chance to sell readers on a book. Typically, it should be written with the intent to draw the reader in, rather than simply self-mythologize or over-explain a message that is already conveyed in the book. The content of a preface is best viewed as insight into your book, rather than a presentation of things you must know to understand it.

How to write a preface

If you have decided that your book can benefit from a preface, here are three tips to help you write one:

1. Keep it succinct

One or two pages should be your maximum. Any longer, and it runs the risk of navel-gazing: readers will always be wary of an author who talks about themselves for too long. Plus, a preface is still part of the front matter, so there’s a decent chance your readers won’t read it anyway. Don’t waste 50 pages on it.

2. Don’t give anything away

A preface is a chance to show off your content and draw readers in — not to baby your audience through something that will become perfectly obvious in the body of the book. Aside from a brief description of the main characters and core themes, leave the rest up to the story itself. You can, however, state the purpose of writing the book, and what the reader can hope to learn from it.

(source: Coffee House Press)

Also, if the book is structurally distinct, a preface is the place to describe how to read it — as with Raymond McDaniel’s Murder (a violet), which has no page numbers and can be read in any order.

3. Tell your story’s story

Aside from those parameters, a preface is your playground! Feel free to use it to describe:

  • Why you chose the subject (and your expertise on it)
  • How you became interested in the subject
  • Why you were motivated to write about it
  • How long it took to write
  • The challenges you overcame while writing
  • The journey of writing it and how you changed in the process

Additionally, if your book is an updated edition of an older work, the preface is the place to describe what’s new. It can also include acknowledgements or any special resources used to write the book — though these inclusions are sometimes better allocated to the back matter.

What is an introduction?

Both the introduction and preface are written by the author and are not necessarily a part of the story at large — neither serves a narrative purpose or engages with the plot, characters, and conflict. However, while the preface is situated outside the body of the book, the introduction is considered part of it: it provides information necessary to understanding the subject matter or content of the book. 

Introductions are almost exclusive to nonfiction or academic writing, where they are used to position research in the context of a larger academic discipline, or to cover important definitions and research methodology. In fiction, an introduction is only necessary when a story requires extra information to understand the content. If you're writing a book proposal, it's not completely necessary to include the introduction in your chapter outline.

example of a book introduction from Darwins' The Origin of Species
(source: On the Origin of Species)

How to write an introduction

Academic introductions follow strict guidelines that differ by field of study, but most consider a 1000 to 2000 word count adequate. If you think your nonfiction (or even fictional) book requires an introduction, first ask yourself:

  • Does the subject matter require background context that isn’t given in the story?
  • Does your work serve an argumentative or persuasive purpose?
  • Are there conclusions to be made that need to be explicitly stated up front?

Then, be sure that you include:

  • A description of the content cover in your book,
  • Your main argument, philosophy, or point of view on the subject,
  • Definitions of any specialized or invented terms,
  • A clear layout of how the book is structured, and
  • How you got the information (the main sources).

Following the old adage, an introduction tells readers what the book is going to say. Then the book actually says it, and the conclusion tells readers what was said. So, if that explicit and rather on-the-nose structure doesn’t suit your story, it probably doesn’t need an introduction.

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What is a foreword?

Let’s clear this up right away: a forward is a direction and, quite frankly, not a noun. A foreword an introductory passage written about a book by someone other than its author.

The people selected to write forewords are often unrelated to the book itself, but related to the book’s subject matter — usually you'll find that it's an academic who studies the topic of the book (or, in the case of the classics, the book itself).

The purpose of a foreword is to:

  • Convince the reader to, well, actually read,
  • Give credence to the book and subject matter, and
  • Introduce an author or work to the world.

These are inevitably more effective coming from someone other than the author themselves (and having a big name attached helps the book’s publisher when it comes time to market it).

How to write a foreword

If you’ve been asked to write a foreword, congratulations! That means you are an eminent authority in one or more fields and have been selected to justify why an entire book was written. That, to put it lightly, is kind of a big deal.

So if you're writing a foreword, you’re in luck: there aren’t very strict guidelines to writing one. Similar to the preface, if the book is a new edition, the foreword will customarily discuss the differences. If it is a reissued classic, it might discuss the book’s historical impact.

the foreward from the book Silent Spring
(source: Houghton Mifflin)

Otherwise, you more or less have free reign. You can discuss:

  • Your relationship to the author or the subject matter,
  • How their work has affected your individual life, and
  • How their work has affected the world at large.

In fact, a foreword doesn’t even need to be about the book itself! It could simply be about one chapter, or the author’s entire bibliography. Ultimately, it describes how a book impacts a single person. So, above all else, make sure it’s personal.

Whether these three beginnings get skipped by your reader or not, they are the pages that kick off your work. So, no matter how you opt to begin your book, make sure starts with a bang — so that it doesn’t end with a whimper.

How are you going to start your book? Let us know if you're opting for a preface, foreword, or introduction in the comment box below.


2 responses

Sanni Adoki A. says:

25/08/2019 – 17:54

Good to read your article on Preface, Foreward and Introduction. It has helped me gain knowledge about the subject matter I have a plan to write a book (academic) which I dimmed it fit to include Introduction. However, at what point do I write the Introduction? Is it before writing the body of the book or after the body of book has been written. Thank you for the quick respond in anticipation

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

27/08/2019 – 08:51

I think that a lot of people save writing the introduction until the body of the book is done. After all, you don't want to rewrite the intro if your book turns out differently to how you planned it :)

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