When you’re writing a nonfiction book, you might wonder what the difference is between an introduction and a preface. Do you need both? And what about a foreword? As an editor, I’m often asked by authors what the difference is between a preface and an introduction. So here, I’ll answer some common questions, explain the difference between the introduction and preface, and tell you what should be included in each…
What’s the purpose of an introduction and preface?
The introduction, preface, foreword, and table of contents (among other things) make up what’s known as the “front matter” of your book. The purpose of this front matter is essentially to welcome your reader to the book before they get into the actual content.
The front matter needs to explain briefly what the book is about, demonstrate the book’s relevance, and convince the reader of your credibility to write the book. But more than that, its purpose is also to compel the reader to buy the book if they haven’t already. When a potential reader picks up a book from the shelves of Waterstones or clicks “look inside” on Amazon, they’ll often read the introduction to decide whether they should purchase the book or not.
Do I need this front matter?
As the front matter forms part of your selling tools, it’s essential to include this information when you’re writing nonfiction books, such as self-help, philosophy, or business development books. While your blurb (the back cover information) will provide some information, the front matter is your opportunity to really sell the book. Think of it this way—if you can’t clearly and succinctly explain what the book is about in the front matter, then why would the reader buy the book?
It’s not just a sales tool though—it helps your reader understand what the book is about without them diving straight into the content, providing a guide map for what’s ahead and helping them put the book into context. Without this front matter information, the reader is stumbling blindly into the world of the book.
Do I need both an introduction and a preface?
In nonfiction books, an introduction is vital, but a preface is optional. If your book is short, a preface may not be needed. However, if your book is relatively long, or your introduction is becoming unwieldy, then splitting the information between the introduction and a preface will help your reader. Whether you decide on just an introduction or include a preface too, the important thing is to ensure you explain the book’s purpose and introduce the reader to the main concept.
How long should the introduction and preface be?
The length of the introduction and preface depends on the individual book. Some editors suggest that it should be half the length of one of your chapters, but the obvious question then becomes how long should a chapter be?
Although it’s a less clear-cut answer, the introduction should be short but informative. It shouldn’t be too long, as your reader will want to get into the content. But it needs to be long enough to introduce the content and compel the reader to keep reading.
As an editor, I’ve worked with authors who had 30 pages of front matter and longer, which is far too much. If the reader is still wading through the introduction after 20 pages, they’re going to get bored very quickly. Think short but sweet.
What’s the difference between the introduction and the preface?
The easiest way to understand the difference between the introduction and the preface is: the preface introduces the book itself, while the introduction introduces the content of the book. The preface is therefore outside the book’s contents, while the introduction forms part of the book’s contents.
The preface should tell the reader:
- The book’s purpose
- Why you wrote the book—such as a personal experience or concern
- How you came to write the book—your credentials and the book’s genesis
- The scope and limitations of the book (optional)
- Commentary on other literature on the subject (optional)
- Acknowledgments or thanks
The introduction should tell the reader:
- What the book is about—the main subject matter, idea, or argument
- The aims of the book—such as the point of view you’d like the reader to adopt
- Who the book is suitable for, and what the reader needs to get started (such as prior knowledge or resources)
- A breakdown of what each chapter or section covers (optional)
- How to read the book i.e. cover to cover or any chapter that interests the reader (optional)
What’s a foreword?
A foreword is written by another person, i.e. not the author, in order to give credibility to the book. The foreword writer should be an expert on the topic or somebody who will add trustworthiness. For example, I edited a book for a group of medical students who included a foreword from their course director, adding credibility to their knowledge of the subject. However, you don’t need a foreword and you shouldn’t include one just for the sake of it—only if the foreword writer will really add value to the book.
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