In the beginning was . . . the Foreword? the Preface? the Introduction?
I was reviewing a manuscript the other day and couldn’t quite tell what the author’s intent was for the beginning elements of his book. The foreword, preface, and introduction play distinct roles. Having read, you know, books, you might intuitively know what the roles are, but until I started working on books full-time, I probably could not have clearly defined each of them. For nonfiction especially, it’s good to know their functions, so you know whether and how to use them.
A primer on . . . the beginning (of books, that is).
First, let’s get this out of the way. In a book, one finds a “foreword,” not a “forward” (Charge!). A foreword is a bunch of words coming before the body of the book, so to remember the spelling, think “before-word.” (Spellcheck will not help you out on this one.)
- Written by: A foreword is written by someone other than the author.
- Purpose: In my opinion, the purpose of a foreword is to make the author look good—to build their credibility by offering expert support and social proof (a.k.a. marketing!).
- Length: It is typically a short piece of writing, maybe a couple pages.
- Good to know: The foreword writer’s name and title typically go at the end of the foreword. If it’s a big enough name, it may be listed in the book publication data; for example, the cover may say:
by Author Name
With a Foreword by Big Name
- Do you need it? No. Many readers will skip the foreword. However, if you can get a big name to write one for your book, go for it. (Marketing!)
- Written by: The preface is written by the author of the book.
- Purpose: The preface tends to speak to “why I wrote this book” and may provide background on the research or approach, but it doesn’t typically get into the meat of the subject matter. Prefaces are often used to comment on updated or anniversary editions.
- Length: The preface is usually shortish—maybe similar to the length of a foreword—but it depends on the book and what the author has to say.
- Good to know: In some books, the preface includes the acknowledgements. I prefer to have a separate acknowledgements section, placed at the end of the book.
- Do you need it? No. Many readers will skip the preface, so don’t put anything critical in it (and if you do, be sure to repeat it in the main text).
- Written by: The introduction is written by the book’s author.
- Purpose: The introduction tees up the subject matter of the book as a whole and lets readers know this book is for them. For a lot of general nonfiction (e.g., business, self-help), the introduction identifies the readers’ problem or situation, reassures them that this book can help, defines the benefits readers will gain, and lays out what to expect in terms of content, including the overarching thesis.
- Length: The introduction could be the length of a typical chapter, but it also could be shorter, depending on what is needed.
- Good to know: Forewords and prefaces are part of what is known as the “front matter,” which is all the stuff at the front of the book that comes before the actual text—title page, copyright page, table of contents, and so on. These pages are often numbered with lowercase roman numerals (i, ii, iii). Occasionally the introduction is part of the front matter, but more often it is part of the main text; this is where page numbering with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) begins.
- Do you need it? Yes. In some shape or form you need an introduction, even if it is not labeled as such—it could simply be chapter one. Readers will at least skim the introduction, especially if they’re standing in B&N deciding whether to buy the book; readers of general nonfiction expect an introduction to help them decide whether the book is intended for them.
Sorting them out
In the manuscript I was reviewing, the foreword was indeed written by someone besides the author, but it contained too much detail about the subject matter, jumping right into the deep end with no context. I suggested chopping the detail and instead highlighting the value the book would provide to the specific reader base, the deep subject matter expertise of the author, and how the foreword writer had personally used the book’s concepts to great success.
The section titled “Preface” had elements of both a preface and an introduction. Since I prefer a reader-focused introduction over an author-focused preface, I suggested recasting some of the content to focus on “you” (the reader) rather than “I” (the author) and to fill a few gaps in helping readers know this was the right book for them.
Some quick alignment of the structure and repositioning of the content created a much stronger beginning—in this case foreword and introduction—from which to launch the book.
Need some help with the beginning (or middle or end) of your manuscript? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll see if I can help.