A reader asked, “What is the difference between a preface, a foreword, and an introduction? And do I need them all?”
There so much publishing lingo used every day that we forget there was a time when we didn’t know what the words meant. It’s one reason I have a “Publishing Lingo” section in the back of the annual Christian Writers Market Guide.
These three pieces of writing (preface, foreword, and introduction) are found at the beginning of several nonfiction books. But not all. Some may have one of the three, some may have none.
In fiction, you should never find a preface, foreword, or introduction. Ever. But you might find a prologue.
A preface is written by the author. It is usually quite short and can include ideas of why the author wrote the book, its importance to the reader, and maybe the intended takeaway for the reader.
The word preface comes from the Latin word praefari which means “to say beforehand.” In a verbal speech, you might hear prefatory remarks given first, often when presenting a prewritten statement.
Go to your bookshelf right now. Pull down twenty nonfiction books and see which ones have a preface and what they say. Tell us in the comments below what you found. Be brief.
Remember to spell this word correctly. It is frustrating to receive proposals where someone has a “Forward.” It is “fore” “word” as in “the word before.” It has been suggested it comes from the German word vorwort.
The foreword is written by someone other than the author. Frequently, they are written by a well-known author who is lending their authority to the credibility of the author. It is more than an endorsement like “Best book ever!” and less than a chapter. Consider it a short introductory essay to the book (500-750 words).
I’ve seen some forewords that are obviously by a friend who lauds the author and their work. Others are written in such a way that you know the book has been read by the writer of the foreword. There have been times when the foreword was so persuasive that it caused me to buy the book for my personal library!
If the writer of the foreword has a substantial following, their name is likely to go on the front cover of the book with a “Foreword by …” banner at the top. Plus, you might find their name in the author listing in an online bookstore. It may look like “Steve Laube (Author), C.S. Lewis (Foreword).” (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)
A third type of “before the book” expression is an introduction written by the author. However, every author needs to be aware that introductions are notoriously skipped by readers. This begs the question of whether your book needs an introduction. For that matter, a preface is often skipped as well.
The biggest problem is that an author is tempted to create an abridged form of the entire book in the introduction. I have frequently stood in a bookstore and read the back cover copy and then the introduction. If the intro is boring, I assume the rest of the book is boring. If the intro is a longer rehash of the book cover copy or just an expanded table of contents, I’m not interested–unless I know there will be great things to be found later in the book.
Rather than repeat other’s advice, I suggest you do a couple of things:
1) As you did above with the preface, take a look at books on your shelf to see what others have done. Did they do it well? Then try the same exercise for your book.
2) Read Kelly Exeter’s excellent article “How to Write a Killer Book Introduction” published in January 2021 on the Copyblogger.com website.
There are no rules when it comes to the use of any of these three devices. You can have zero, one, two, or all three. But make sure they add to your project and don’t detract. Plus, remember that front-matter like these elements is skipped by more than half of the readers of your book.