Preface, Foreword, or Introduction—which of these, if any, does your book need, and how are they different from each other? I’ll give you my advice as a substantive/developmental book editor with two decades’ experience editing both fiction and nonfiction.
Novels don’t need any of them. Novels may, however, need a Prologue. (See my article Does Your Novel Need a Prologue? Fiction authors, you can stop reading here, as the rest of this information is for nonfiction authors only.)
If you write nonfiction—especially the self-help variety—your book should include an Introduction, not a Preface. This is assuming you write for a popular audience. (If you write for an academic or technical audience, then a Preface is more appropriate than an Introduction, or you could include both).
Here are some working definitions. They’re kind of technical, but they do nail down the distinctions so you can make sure your book includes the right thing. Bear with this part, as the section after explains how to write a great Introduction.
Defining the Differences
Ready to get technical? Okay, here goes:
Foreword: (appropriate for any nonfiction book, but not required) Written by someone other than the author, someone with renown, whose words lend credibility to the author and to the book. At the end of the Foreword, the name of the person who wrote it appears, along with the date and location. (Don’t misspell this word as “Forward”—a common error.)
Introduction: (appropriate for self-help books and most nonfiction books written for a general audience) Written by the author. Introduces the subject matter. Explains the author’s qualifications to write on this subject. Explains how the author came to write the book. Explains why a person should read the book (or the problem the book will solve). Includes advice on how to read the book (optional). An introduction does not include the author’s name, date, or location at the end.
Preface: (appropriate for memoirs and for academic or technical books) Written by the author. Tells how the book came to be written and why the author is qualified to write on the subject. The author’s name appears at the end with the date, and (optionally) with the location.
Phew! Glad we got through that.
Writing an Introduction
Now let’s talk about writing an Introduction, since chances are that’s what your book needs. Avoid including too much content in your Introduction—leave the important material for your chapters, and keep the Introduction short, usually between fifteen-hundred and two-thousand words (much shorter than that if your other chapters are short). The Introduction should be about half the length of any of your chapters.
Luring Them In
The Introduction is the doorway into the book proper. It should lure readers in, motivating them to cross that threshold. Is there a problem or danger the book provides an answer to? Tell us about it in the Introduction. Don’t give too much detail about the solution, because some readers skip Introductions, and you don’t want them to miss out on important information. Just tell us enough to give us a reason to start reading.
Tell us a little about yourself and why you wrote the book. Don’t get into biographical detail—where you went to college and all the companies you worked for. Save that for your About the Author page, which will go in the back of the book. Instead, only include two or three things about yourself that are your main credentials for writing on this subject. It’s a good idea to give this information in a conversational, informal way—perhaps through a story—as this makes you seem approachable (as opposed to didactic—readers avoid books that have a preachy “I’m telling you” tone).
If you’re writing about sales and you’ve sold four-hundred-million dollars worth of real estate, that would be something to mention. If you’re writing on parenting and you’ve successfully raised four children, include that. If you’re writing on weight loss, and you’re a weight loss counselor who has helped dozens of people reach their goal weight, that would be a fact for your Introduction.
The point is to establish credibility, to convince your prospective readers that you’re an authority in your field—that because you know what you’re talking about, it’s worth their time to read what you have to say.
Guiding Their Read
Is there a certain way people should read your book to get the most out of it? If you have exercises at the end of each chapter, mention that in the Introduction, and give us a motivating reason why we should bother to do them. If we should read with a pen and paper in hand because you want us to stop at intervals and journal, explain that. If you have no particular instructions for the best way to read your book, simply leave this part out of your Introduction.
Why Not to Call It a Preface
The primary reason it’s better to title your preliminary message to the reader an Introduction (rather than a Preface) is that many readers skip Prefaces and start reading at Chapter One. More people read Introductions than read Prefaces, because “Preface” sounds stuffy. So if you want your opening message to actually get read, call it an Introduction.
Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional