Over the last couple of weeks, our blog has been focused on the varying aspects of a book’s frontmatter – from dedications to forewords to today’s post, which focuses on the preface. The preface is a section that comes before the story, and it is often jumbled up with the introduction, foreword, and prologue. These terms aren’t interchangeable. However, it’s important for self-publishers to know what a book preface is and how it is different from other frontmatter.
The definition of preface (n) is, “an introduction to a book, typically stating its subject, scope, or aims.” A preface is written by the author, and it is about the book: how it came to be, what inspired it, what the writing process was like, etc. A preface is a place for the author to discuss the situation surrounding their book, essentially, and is more often used in nonfiction books. Often, the author will conclude it with a list of acknowledgements: thank yous to editors, publishers, or other influential people who helped bring the book to life.
How is This Different From Other Frontmatter?
Prefaces are different in that they discuss the inspiration, writing, and publishing of the book. Introductions are solely about the content (themes, characters). Forewords are essays written by other writers/authors about the book and its author. Prologues are a part of the story and are comprised of a scene or multiple scenes that are pertinent to the plot.
How to Write a Preface for Your Book
This should be easy after writing a book! This section of the frontmatter can be as short or as long as you’d like. It’s a place to be honest and open with your readers about the writing of the book – be it a fictional, romance novel or a biography of Abraham Lincoln. With interest in the book comes an interest in the author and how they created the work, so readers are naturally drawn to the preface.
Keep these things in mind when writing:
- Your readers want to know you. Be an open book.
- Writing a book is hard work, and this is the place to talk about that.
- How your book came to life is a journey in itself. Showcase it.
- Make it clear to the reader why they should read the book. The preface is a good marketing tool.
Below are some preface examples to give you an idea on how to write a preface for your book:
Into the Wild (Nonfiction, Biography) by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer prefaces Into the Wild, the biographical account of the disappearance and death of Chris McCandless, with a quick two-and-a-half-page essay on how he came to write about the topic in the first place and how his coverage was received by friends and family of the late Chris McCandless.
Early Work (Poetry) by Patti Smith
Smith’s preface works as a note to the reader: to explain to them why she wrote what she did in the 1970s, how it differs from what she thinks now, and how she remembers it. In this short statement, she says, “The seventies. When I think of them now I think of one great film in which I played a part. A bit part. But a part nonetheless that I shall never play again.”
Sarah’s Key (Historical Fiction) by Tatiana de Rosnay
Tatiana de Rosnay prefaces her Holocaust novel with a brief author’s note, stating that while the story is fictional, certain events within it actually happened.
If you feel there’s something that needs to be said for the writing of the book, be it an explanation or a clarification, the preface is a great place to do so. Self-published authors, especially, face a unique and exciting journey when they set out to publish a book, and the preface is a great place to discuss that.
What is a Preface in a Book? was last modified: November 3rd, 2017 by Hannah GordonWritten by Hannah Gordon
I’m currently working on my fifth nonfiction book and starting is always the hardest part. There are just so many options. Should I write a preface? A prologue? An introduction? Should I find someone to write a foreword? Should I just start at chapter one?
If you’ve ever found yourself asking these questions, you’re not alone! And you’re in luck! I’ve asked these questions too and found some answers.
Let’s talk about the difference between each these and figure out which is best for you.
An introduction is used to (surprise) introduce the topic of the book.
The most important part of the introduction is the why. It’s in this section that the author (you) explains why you wrote this book, why this story needs to be told, and why you were the right person to tell it.
For example, if I were writing a book about why everyone should drink only black coffee, I would use the introduction to briefly explain how important my argument was and why I was the person to tell you about it. I might even tell you a story about how I drank coffee that had sugar in it one time and it ruined my life. (Don’t worry; this didn’t actually happen.)
In my opinion, the perfect introduction length is anywhere between 1,200 and 2,200 words. You want to keep it brief but long enough to justify a completely separate chapter.
Introductions are best for nonfiction books that have deep subject matter and may need more explanation to prepare the reader with all the information they need to understand the full story.
A preface may look similar to an introduction, but the goals of the two are very different. The main goal of the preface is to tell the reader any and all information that precedes the facts and events of the book.
A preface is perfect for explaining to the reader how you came to write the book, how long you’ve been working on it, what the reader can expect, etc.
Here’s the thing with a preface, though: most readers don’t read them. (What?!) I know, I’m sorry, but it’s true.
That being said, don’t put any extremely critical information in the preface.
Write a preface if you have interesting insight and information to share with your readers that’s important to the background of the story.
Don’t hide critical information in your preface—many readers won’t read it.
P.S. My favorite thing about a preface is that you get to sign it, put the date, and even the location you wrote it if you’d like.
This one is for all you fiction writers. (Okay, nonfiction writers can use this one too, but this is the only one on this list that really applies to fiction, so shoutout to them.)
The prologue almost always reads like a story. In fact, it should be a story. The reason that you would include a story in the prologue instead of in the book is because the story doesn’t align with the timeframe that the rest of the book is in. While the story won’t fit in the time frame, it is important that the problem and main theme of the book be addressed in the prologue.
What I love about prologues are the last few sentences. Generally, the last few sentences in a prologue switch from storytelling to addressing the specific problem and at times even directly addressing the reader.
One of my favorite examples of this is from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou finishes telling the story and the tone slightly shifts as she writes:
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
Prologues are best for novels and works of fiction. They are incredible ways to prepare the reader for the message in the book through a beautiful narrative.
This is the only option on this list that isn’t written by you, the author. A foreword is generally written by a more well-known and respected figure. The writer of the foreword will generally have background or relevant experience with the topic of the book.
Forewords can be incredible ways to gain more authority for your book. I know I’ve picked up a book just because of the “Foreward by” line. Have you?
Forewords can be found in pieces of literature as well as nonfiction works, but that is much less common.
A foreword will most likely explain the relationship between the writer of the foreword and the author of the book share and how this book affected the foreword writer.
What will you write?
Now you have no excuse to put off writing your book any longer! Hopefully, one of these resonated with the work you are writing.
Is an introduction, preface, prologue, or forward right for your book?
If not, know that you can skip all of these these altogether and head straight to chapter one.
Either way, start writing, now!
Have you ever used an introduction, preface, prologue, or forward? How did it strengthen your book? Let us know in the comments.
Which one will you write? Let us know which one you pick and why you picked it in the comments below! Then, spend fifteen minutes working on the your Introduction, Preface, or Prologue.
When you’re done, share it in the comments below. Don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.
On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.
She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.