When writing a nonfiction book, it’s not just the main contents that matter. You also have to pay careful attention to the front matter of your book.
Think of the preface as your book’s chance to make a great first impression (in addition to your beautifully designed cover, of course!).
If you are just building your author platform and people don’t really know you yet, they will be more likely to check out things like the preface, foreword, or featured reviews to get a better feel for your work—so if you include a preface, make it count!
What Is a Preface?
The preface is one of the integral parts of your book’s front matter. It is the narrative that introduces or explains your reasons for writing that particular book.
Because it’s always written by the author, the preface gives readers valuable insight into what they can expect from the book.
Sometimes, this first impression can make the difference between a reader jumping into your book immediately or filing it back neatly on their shelf, along with a host of other abandoned titles.
This also applies to ebooks, thanks to Amazon’s free sample option for Kindle. Readers can explore new authors by getting a glimpse of their writing style and their authority before committing to an actual purchase.
What Is the Purpose of a Preface?
Although the preface is not mandatory, writing a preface gives you as an author the chance to address your readers directly. Through the preface, you are able to:
- Give information about your experience and authority
- Share the inspiration for your chosen topic
- Explain your research process
- Outline your writing process and share any challenges you came across
- Reveal your purpose or motivation for writing the book
- Share any historical context or relevant information to make the book more understandable
- Explain any additional information (for example, maybe the preface was added to a newer edition of a previously-published book)
Difference Between Preface, Prologue, Introduction, and Foreword
Now that we’ve defined what a preface is, let’s see how it’s different from other front matter elements, such as the foreword and prologue.
Preface: Academic writing and nonfiction books normally open with a preface. This preface is written from the author’s point of view, often detailing why the author wrote that particular book and why they are qualified to write about that subject.
Prologue: A prologue is most often found in fiction books, and is usually written from the point of view of one of the characters. This added introduction is used as a literary device to give the reader important information that will help them to understand the story.
Introduction: The introduction generally introduces the readers to the contents of the book, preparing them for what to expect.
Foreword: This introductory section of a book is written by another person, and not the author themself. A prominent person, especially one considered an expert on the topic, is usually asked to write the foreword.
What Is Written in a Preface?
Although the preface is not an official part of your book, writing a preface gives you as an author the chance to address your readers directly. Through the preface, you are able to:
- Give information about your experience and authority in writing the book
- Share the inspiration behind your chosen topic
- Explain your research process
- Outline your writing process, sharing your challenges
- Reveal your purpose or motivation for writing the book
- Share any historical context or relevant information to make the book more understandable to your readers
- Explain any additional information, such as in the case of a preface added to a newer edition of a previously-published book without a preface
Deciding Whether Your Book Needs a Preface
One important consideration in deciding whether or not you need to write a preface is the type of book you are writing. Generally, if you are writing for a technical or academic audience, a preface is a good thing to include.
Other books in nonfiction genres, like self-help books, generally come with an introduction instead of a preface.
A good preface can have as few as four paragraphs, but it can also go longer. A safe estimate is to keep it less than three typewritten pages.
Prefaces for Fiction
To clarify, the preface of a book generally explains why the book was written and the author’s background that makes them the best person to write the book. This is why it is mostly seen in nonfiction books.
Some exceptions for fiction have been seen in literature, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The author wrote a preface to explain how he gave the characters their own dialect based on where they were from.
To give you an idea how a preface works, here are some excerpts of prefaces from different books:
Example #1. Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch
If no other knowledge deserves to be called useful but that which helps to enlarge our possessions or to raise our station in society, then Mythology has no claim to the appellation. But if that which tends to make us happier and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for our subject. For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.
Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. When Byron calls Rome “the Niobe of nations,” or says of Venice, “She looks a Sea-Cybele fresh from ocean,” he calls up to the mind of one familiar with our subject, illustrations more vivid and striking than the pencil could furnish, but which are lost to the reader ignorant of mythology. Milton abounds in similar allusions.
Example #2. How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
How to Read a Book was first published in the early months of 1940. To my surprise and, I confess, to my delight, it immediately became a best seller and remained at the top of the nationwide best-seller list for more than a year. Since 1940, it has continued to be widely circulated in numerous printings, both hardcover and paperback, and it has been translated into other languages—French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Italian. Why, then, attempt to recast and rewrite the book for the present generation of readers?
The reasons for doing so lie in changes that have taken place both in our society in the last thirty years and in the subject itself. Today many more of the young men and women who complete high school enter and complete four years of college; a much larger proportion of the population has become literate in spite of or even because of the popularity of radio and television. There has been a shift of interest from the reading of fiction to the reading of nonfiction. The educators of the country have acknowledged that teaching the young to read, in the most elementary sense of that word, is our paramount educational problem…
How to Write a Preface
Although not all readers choose to read the preface, it’s still very important to write a good one. For one thing, it is your chance to capture the reader’s attention, especially if you do not have a strong following.
Here are some tips for writing a great preface:
1. Share who you are.
The power of a nonfiction book lies in the author’s authority. Be open about sharing your strengths as well as your weaknesses.
Your strengths, such as your achievements and relevant trainings or experiences, help assure your readers that you know what you’re talking about.
But sharing your weaknesses will also help show your humility, making your readers feel more confident when it comes to trusting you.
2. Readers aren’t looking for superheroes.
Readers want to hear from someone who has gone through what they are going through. Therefore, you want to be as transparent as possible. It will make you more easily relatable to your readers.
3. Remember the old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Find ways to let your readers know how you care about their problem or issues. Connect it to why you decided to write this book, and be willing to share your own personal struggles, experiences, or connections to their problem.
4. Stay on topic.
While you may be tempted to go into a lengthy exposition of your childhood, remember the purpose of your preface and stay within its bounds. This will help you focus the conversation, preparing your reader to delve into the main body of your book.
5. Feel free to refer to specific contents in your book.
Since the preface is your way to connect with your readers while assuring them of the quality of your book, you can make references to things that you will discuss later in the book. Some writers even give a quick outline of what readers can expect, making the preface a very clear introduction to the contents of the book.
Write the Preface Your Book Deserves
In the end, remember to treat the preface as a part of your book that is just as vital as its main contents.
You never know how many people will end up reading—or not reading!—your book simply based on what you say in your preface.
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