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As a non-fiction editor for close to thirty years, I have helped many an author meet the challenge of establishing a clear, comfortable entry into their book – comfortable for themselves as well as their readers.
Whether writers compose the introductory elements of their book at the beginning of their project or at the end, once they’ve completed the body of the book, their beginning pages often read to me as if they’re taking several runs at introducing their topic.
I’ve found that this is partly the result of confusion over the difference between a foreword, preface, and introduction.
Different publishers and editors may define these elements of the front end of books differently, but here are some definitions and descriptions – supported by the dictionary and the august Chicago Manual of Style and proven to be helpful in my work as an editor and publisher – that my authors have found of assistance.
A foreword (one of the most often misspelled words in the language) is most often written by someone other than the author: an expert in the field, a writer of a similar book, etc. Forewords help the publisher at the level of marketing: An opening statement by an eminent and well-published author gives them added credibility in pitching the book to bookstores. Forewords help the author by putting a stamp of approval on their work.
A preface is best understood, I believe, as standing outside the book proper and being about the book. In a preface an author explains briefly why they wrote the book, or how they came to write it. They also often use the preface to establish their credibility, indicating their experience in the topic or their professional suitability to address such a topic. Sometimes they acknowledge those who inspired them or helped them (though these are often put into a separate Acknowledgments section). Using an old term from the study of rhetoric, a preface is in a sense an “apology”: an explanation or defense.
If a preface is about the book as a book, the introduction is about the content of the book. Sometimes it is as simple as that: It introduces what is covered in the book. Other times it introduces by setting the overall themes of the book, or by establishing definitions and methodology that will be used throughout the book. Scholarly writers sometimes use the introduction to tell their profession how the book should be viewed academically (that is, they position the book as a particular approach within a discipline or part of a discipline). This latter material is appropriate for a preface, as well. The point is that it should appear in the preface or the introduction, not both.
I helped authors with the front end of their books in two recent cases by refining for them the differences between these rubrics of foreword, preface, and introduction. Because these books were very practical books, I also introduced the rubric of “How to Use This Book.”
Not only did these authors take several stabs at describing their book’s contents via their preface and introduction, they actually tried one more time in their first chapter.
In both cases I set up three rubrics for the front end of the book: Preface, How to Use This Book, and Introduction. I then put like with like. I sorted out the various descriptions of why the book had been written and placing them under the heading “Preface.” I found sentences that dealt with the use of the book and placed them under the heading of “How to Use This Book.” I took the various explanations of what the reader was going to read and placed them under the heading of “Introduction.” I also, in one case, deleted the repeated material in the first chapter, and in the other case, moved the repeated material from the first chapter to the Introduction, replacing a less-well-stated introductory comment there.
In both instances the authors felt that I had waved a magic wand over the material. They felt a sense of satisfaction, knowing that their manuscripts now clearly explained to the reader why they wrote their book, how it was to be used, and the details of what it covered.
What about you and your manuscript? I believe the above definitions and distinctions may alleviate the anxiety you likely feel as a writer. You are anxious to be clear, you want to feel justified in addressing readers with your content, you want to establish your credibility, and you want to set the parameters of your time together. Keep in mind that your anxiety may be what is causing your own confusion at the beginning of a book. If unaddressed, it will cause confusion in your readers.
So just calm down and sort through your material as described above. You may be surprised to find that the exercise does something else for you, revealing a better way for you to construct, or reconstruct, the rest of your manuscript!