Preface, Foreword, Introduction. Oh My!

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.

Preface

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.

Foreword

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?)

Introduction

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.

Reminder

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.

15 Responses to Preface, Foreword, Introduction. Oh My!

  1. Jeannie Delahunt July 26, 2021 at 5:49 am #

    Greatly appreciate the clarifications. Thank you.

  2. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. July 26, 2021 at 6:21 am #

    Steve, I don’t think that C. S. Lewis is still writing any Forewards for books, though perhaps he is……Maybe in heaven……

    That said, getting these differences was a huge help. My students have to learn the difference between an abstract and and introduction. It takes some of them a lot longer than others.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 26, 2021 at 6:50 am #

    Steve, for what it may be worth, I’ve most often seen prefaces used in new editions of nonfiction, when new material has been added…though Arthur C. Clarke sometime used them in new editions of SF novels (which he updated according to new advances in science).

    Introduction, foreward, preface,
    swirl around inside of me;
    are they curse or are they grace,
    and why does ‘foreward’ need an ‘e’?
    The preface seems useful device
    for ‘why I wrote’, and ‘new edition’,
    and foreward with an e is nice
    to get one’s better’s approbation…
    but what of introduction, now?
    Is it meant to set the sage,
    and is it really truly how
    reader’s convinced to turn the page?
    All this makes me stop and think,
    and for that need a drink.

    And no, I don’t drink.

    • Steve Laube July 26, 2021 at 12:12 pm #

      If I had been Arthur C. Clarke’s publisher I would have suggested we call it an “Author’s Note” instead of a preface.

  4. Loretta Eidson July 26, 2021 at 7:04 am #

    I always appreciate in-depth explanations of publishing lingo. Thank you!

  5. Frank July 26, 2021 at 7:10 am #

    Thank you for the clarification. I’m getting close to finishing my book. Your input is timely.

  6. Roberta Sarver July 26, 2021 at 7:27 am #

    Your explanation really helped. Thanks! I cringed when one of my former students wrote a book about his dad and included a “forward.” Oh well, we’re all learning at a different rate.

  7. Joyce Jacobs Erfert July 26, 2021 at 8:04 am #

    Thank you. I have actually been wondering about these lately. Someone wrote that instead of a preface, just make it chapter one. Is that true?

    • Steve Laube July 26, 2021 at 11:10 am #

      Joyce,
      It depends.
      If yours is a novel it probably doesn’t have a preface but a prologue. Prologues are sometimes skipped by a reader but may still be an integral part of the storytelling.

      If yours is non-fiction it depends on the content of your preface. It may not be enough for a chapter one and may distract from the initial beginnings of the book.

      Each book has its own unique flavor so “rules” don’t exist. 🙂

  8. Steve Laube July 26, 2021 at 11:14 am #

    A gentle grammarian reminder:

    It is spelled foreword. As in “fore” and “word” aka “the word before.”

    Not forward or foreward.

    Spell check or auto-complete is not your friend. LOL

    I don’t know how many times I have misspelled it while speed typing… so we are all in good company. 🙂

  9. Elliott Slaughter July 26, 2021 at 12:00 pm #

    While rare, there are some novels that include frontmatter chapters. For example, the Rick Riordan Presents imprint books typically include introductions (in this case by Rick Riordan, not the author of the book itself). See e.g., Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee.

    You also sometimes see these on reprints of older, successful works. For example, my copy of The Lord of the Rings includes two notes and a foreword. These can be to share perspective on the text (since its original publication) or, as in LOTR, are often about various issues fixed over the years.

    • Steve Laube July 26, 2021 at 12:14 pm #

      As mentioned, it is rare.

      In Riordan’s case, he is introducing a line that has his name on it but he did not necessarily write.

      With Lord of the Rings…. many “classic” books end up with extra stuff over time.

      My above post merely attempts to explain “normal” publishing practices (not rules). 🙂

  10. Kristen Joy Wilks July 26, 2021 at 2:58 pm #

    Sometimes I read these, sometimes I skim, sometimes I totally skip. Interestingly, for fiction, my oldest son absolutely always skips the prologue. “It’s not part of the story,” he explained. Something to keep in mind when you are writing your books.

    • Shulamit July 29, 2021 at 11:10 am #

      In fiction I *always* read the prologue. I assume any author who put one in, had a reason. I can honestly say I do not recall reading one and feeling it was not worth my time.

      If someone approaches fiction with the goal of getting through it as fast as possible, then I guess there’s some logic to skipping a prologue. For me, if the book is good I am sad to leave the author’s world when I get to the end. This is true even if I am speeding along in my reading, taking it in as fast as I can because I’m so desperate to find out what happens next. Therefore, it seems to me either the prologue is worth reading–or the book is not worth finishing.

  11. Lisa Taylor July 27, 2021 at 5:20 am #

    I usually read these… but beware, if the introduction is boring, then alas, I to may not read any further. Thank you for such an illuminating article!

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