Where do we start a book? To quote the King in Alice in Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
If only it were so simple.
Fiction needs to consider the prologue. Nonfiction books have introductions often, prefaces sometimes, and occasionally forewords. Do we know how to use them well? An introduction, preface, and foreword serve different purposes, although we tend to muddle them up.
The most important distinguishing feature of the foreword is that it should be written by someone other than the author.
I’ve seen authors writing introductions or prefaces and calling them forewords. The foreword is not for you, dear author. The foreword is an opportunity for you—a marketing opportunity.
Your foreword plays in much the same space as your back cover copy: it helps you sell the book. Contributors to forewords are experts in the field your book is about, or authors of similar books. A foreword adds credibility to your book by offering a stamp of approval that other people will recognize: bookstores as well as individual consumers. You are after the name recognition and esteem of your contributor.
Think of the preface as an envelope. The preface is about the book itself—not the contents of the book.
This is your opportunity to talk about why you wrote this book. What brought you here? What are you trying to achieve? You may use this space to establish your credentials—indicate your experience in a topic or the professional expertise that makes you well-suited to talk about it. Often, authors muddle this together with the material in the introduction. They are best kept separate. Give your book a clean start and make it easy for your readers.
What you include here should NOT appear in your introduction, and vice versa—avoid duplication.
Most familiar to us, the introduction is also for the author. If the preface is the envelope, the introduction is a cover letter to the manuscript: you get to explain how to use the contents of the book itself.
The introduction can be simple. You introduce the topic of the book, and leave it at that. You can also use the introduction to set up the themes you are planning to address, establish any definitions or methodology you use, or point out the structure of your book and any exercises or resources you include and how the reader may want to use them. What you do NOT want to do is repeat content that already appears in your preface.
Your book structure should be clear, and so should the way you use your foreword, preface, and introduction (if you choose to include them). Guide the reader where you want them to go; don’t knock them about and leave them wondering where they should begin.
Alexandra O’Connell, Your Resident Wordsmith, helps self-published authors make a professional, inspirational impact on their audience with writing that is engaging and editorially beautiful. Find her at www.alexoconnell.com.