What is the purpose of a preface? And does your book even need one?
Not every book has a preface, after all.
And you’re more likely to see one in a nonfiction book than in a novel, as you’ll see in the preface examples further on.
But what goes in there, anyway?
What does it cover that you wouldn’t put in your book’s introduction?
And how do you write a preface that won’t sabotage your reader’s interest?
What Is a Preface?
The preface of a book comes between its foreword (if you have one) and the introduction.
While it’s not necessary, it can add to the reader’s experience by answering questions that have to do with the writing of the book:
- Why you wrote it — its overall purpose or the pain point you’re addressing.
- What makes you qualified to write it — your background and qualifications.
- How you wrote it — research methods, outlining, noteworthy experiences
With nonfiction books, an introduction serves a purpose similar to that of a prologue in a work of fiction.
The preface is the same in both fiction and nonfiction books because its purpose lies outside its content or storyline.
What is the Difference Between a Preface and an Introduction in a Book?
The introduction begins the main body of the book by giving the reader a snapshot of what they can expect, leading them right to Chapter One.
On the other hand, the preface takes a step back from the book to discuss questions about the book’s creation.
It remains on the outside, like the foreword, which is why it’s part of the front matter and not the main body of the book.
Unlike the foreword, it’s written by the author, who may use the preface to answer the aforementioned questions and acknowledge those who had a role to play in the book’s creation.
How Long is a Preface?
For your reader’s sake, a preface should be short — one page or two at the most. Most readers don’t want to slog through a detailed explanation of the book’s origins.
Present the salient points and give the reader a reason to believe your book will improve their life in some way. You can either include your acknowledgments here or save those for a separate section in your book’s front matter or back matter.
What Goes in the Preface of a Book?
Writing a preface involves asking yourself the questions listed above and answering them as clearly and succinctly as possible to achieve the following goals:
- Explain why the book exists
- Justify your role as the author
- Get your reader excited about the book
Consider the following preface example (first few sentences) from Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome:
“The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome provides a personal perception of children, teenagers, and adults with Asperger’s syndrome based on my extensive clinical experience and reviewing and contributing to research studies and publications. I am a practicing clinician and intend the guide to be of practical value to parents, professionals, and people with Asperger’s syndrome. I have tried to refrain from indulging in too many technical terms so that the text can be easily read by someone who does not have a post-graduate degree in psychology….”
It continues for two pages, explaining the author’s reasons for writing the book and describing his experience helping people on the autism spectrum.
How is Preface Written?
Read on to learn how to write a preface for a book. Give each step your thoughtful consideration, and see the preface examples above for inspiration.
1. See Your Preface for What It Is.
Think of your preface as the “making of” your book — its very own origin story.
It’s a behind-the-scenes look at how and why you wrote this book, what inspired you, and what about the creative process is most likely to interest your reader.
What you as the writer think of your preface will influence what the reader thinks of it, too.
If you treat it like an afterthought or as a compulsory academic exercise, your reader will likely pick up on your boredom and wonder if it infuses the entire book.
2. Reveal Your True Self.
Your reader is more interested in why you care about your subject matter than in what you know about it. Show them your investment in the book you’ve written and why you put so much time and energy into its creation.
Show your humanness and how it contributes to the overall message of the book. Unless you’re writing a technical manual, your reader wants to see evidence of a beating heart behind the words.
Let them see your passion. Let the emotions behind your motivation come through and show your reader this is more than an academic exercise or a way to make some money.
And be your authentic, imperfect self. Your reader doesn’t need you to be without fault.
3. Freewrite the First Draft.
This is where you’ll answer questions about your book’s creation. Freewriting means no self-editing along the way.
Get the words out. Editing comes later.
In your preface, you’ll answer questions like the following:
- Why did you write this book?
- What is the overall purpose of this book, and why does it matter to you?
- Why should it matter to your reader? What pain points does it address?
- Why should the reader take your viewpoint seriously?
- How much time did you spend working on the book (research and writing)?
- How many people were involved in the book’s inspiration and creation?
If the answers to any questions sound dull and don’t add to your book’s appeal, leave it out. For now, focus on the answers you find most interesting to you as the writer.
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4. Take a Break.
Give yourself some distance from your first draft before returning to it.
Getting away from what you’ve written helps you see it more as a reader when you read it after a few days. You’ll see things you weren’t able to see on the day you wrote it. You won’t be as attached to phrases you thought were clever when you first wrote them.
Your reader brain won’t hesitate to think, “Oh, that’s not working. Let’s change that.” And the better you can see it as a reader, the easier it is to make changes your readers will appreciate.
5. Highlight the Interesting Points.
After a break from the first draft of your preface, highlight the points you think your reader will find most interesting. If necessary, expand on or clarify these points to make them easier to read and more helpful or inspiring.
Your preface should be short but full of content your reader will find compelling, so they won’t skip over it or lose interest in reading further.
6. Trim the Parts Your Reader Would Skip.
Once you’ve highlighted those essential points, cut out any content your reader would probably skip over. You don’t want any part of your preface to slow the reader down or even make them close the book.
Taking a few days’ break from your preface will make it easier to see what readers are less likely to find interesting.
Maybe it seemed interesting to you when you were freewriting your first draft. But time and other projects help create the distance you need.
7. Revise Your Preface.
Once you’ve cut the fluff, revise your post to make its essential points as clear and fluid as possible.
This is essential if you want to give your reader the best possible experience with your book. Don’t wait until the introduction to turn on the charm.
If necessary, do some trimming to keep the length at one to two pages. Make every sentence earn its place.
Now that you know what belongs in a preface and how to write one, it’s also worth considering whether your book even needs one.
If you find that your book’s origin story doesn’t reveal anything that would add to your readers’ experience of it, you have every right to decide to go without. Many authors do.
But if you decide to share something of your book’s backstory, now you know how to write a preface, your reader will be glad they noticed.