As readers, we may not pay too much attention to those pages at the front of the book. We may flip through them and decide in the moment whether we want to read any of the sections there. But as authors, it’s important to know all the different elements of the book–including those in the front.
A book’s preface is one of those elements. And until you know what a preface is, you won’t know whether or not you need one. So, read on to discover what a preface is and how to write one.
If you want to learn more about other parts of a book, we recommend checking out this post that goes into detail on every piece, from the title page to the afterword.
- What exactly a preface is
- What a preface contains
- The difference between a preface and a prologue
- How to write a preface
Table of contents
- What is a Preface?
- What Should be Included in the Preface of a Book?
- Preface Examples
- How to Write a Preface
What is a Preface?
A preface is a part of the front matter of a book where the book’s author can provide a bit of context for the reader. It’s usually a place where the five Ws come into play. As in who you are, what the book is about, when you wrote it, where you wrote it, and, finally, why you wrote it. Out of these, the who and the why are generally the most important.
What Should be Included in the Preface of a Book?
Every book ever written has the five W's behind it. But that doesn’t mean that every book needs a preface. In fact, most don’t. After all, a lot of readers simply skip over the front matter of the book.
A good preface should be interesting. It should include information that is interesting to the reader but not essential for understanding the work itself. Some elements often included in the preface are:
- Noteworthy research methods.
- Why you as the writer are uniquely suited to address the subject matter.
- How long it took to write.
- Any struggles that took place (did you suffer for your art?).
- Any challenges you had to overcome to write the book.
Here are some great examples of prefaces for you to check out if you're thinking about writing a preface. Consider reading prefaces from books similar to yours, as well.
The Venging by Greg Bear
Prefaces are somewhat common in short story collections. More common than in other fiction books, anyway. And the preface to The Venging by Greg Bear is a great example of this.
He begins the preface by talking about the passion he has for science fiction. And how writing in the genre has been a great experience. Then he goes on to talk about the stories in the book, explaining a little bit about the writing process of each one.
The whole preface is about three pages long. And although there is no date, Greg Bears signs off with his name and the location at the time of writing: Spring Valley, California.
Think and Grow Rich! by Napoleon Hill
The much-hailed and epitomized success-mindset book by Napoleon Hill is a great example of a nonfiction book with a preface. And, in fact, the preface is rather long in this case.
The long preface certainly serves a purpose. In it, Mr. Hill talks about his 20-year journey in writing the book. He discusses the formation of the idea with a Mr. Carnegie, and also shares a list of names of successful people who all use the same “secret” that’s outlined in the book.
But, again, you do not have to read the preface to understand the book. The preface is interesting and it provides social proof that what follows actually works, but if you skip it, you can still put the tactics in the book to use. And this, after all, is the whole reason for reading the book.
How to Write a Preface
If you think your manuscript should have a preface before publishing, there are some tips to keep in mind while writing one.
- Keep it short – Remember that most prefaces are short and sweet to make reading them quick and easy.
- Keep it interesting – Share only the truly interesting facts about writing the book.
- Make it supplemental – Don’t include anything that the reader absolutely needs to understand your book’s topic- remember that many readers will skip the author's preface.
- Share your passion and your journey – You never know what reader may share your passion for the book’s topic. Share what inspired you and any unique experiences you had writing the book.
How to Format a Preface
Like a foreword, a preface is formatted similarly to a chapter heading, but usually with a few small changes, including:
- The preface uses less ornamentation such as having no larger first letters.
- The first paragraph is usually not indented.
- The title of the preface is usually just “Preface” but doesn't have to be
- It has an optional subtitle
- Since it is part of the front matter, it will often have roman numerals instead of page numbers.
If you are formatting in a program like Microsoft Word, and already have your trim size, margins, gutter margins, font licenses (be sure you have the commercial license for all fonts, most people don't), then formatting the preface should be relatively simple. Just make sure it has minimal ornamentation compared to the chapter pages, and gets the page numbers right.
Thankfully, a program like Atticus will help to do this for you.
Not only will it take care of the trim sizes, gutter margins, and page numbers all automatically, but it will also create beautifully formatted books with a consistent design. And you won't have to worry about any lawsuits from the fonts you use, which might get you into trouble if you're using your own fonts with MS Word.
Created in Atticus.io
In addition to all of the above, there are a few other frequently asked questions that you might have about prefaces.
Do all books have a preface?
No. All books do not need to have a preface. Prefaces are most common in nonfiction books and academic writing. It’s pretty rare to find a preface in a fiction book. However, if a popular novel has been re-released, the author may be asked to write a preface to the new edition. This is because the book already has a following and fans may be interested to know more about the writing process.
Ultimately, it’s up to you as the author to decide if you want to write a preface, whether you are writing a fiction or nonfiction book.
How long is a preface?
The general rule with prefaces is “the shorter the better.” Some prefaces are a paragraph or two. Others are a couple of pages. But the best prefaces don’t share any more than they have to. They should be as succinct as possible because you don’t want to take away from the beginning of the book.
A long and tedious preface will tell the reader that the main text is likely to be more of the same. So keep it simple, brief, and engaging.
What is the difference between a Foreword, Preface, and Introduction?
It can be easy to confuse the different elements of the front of a book. The other two common elements that can be found in many nonfiction works are the foreword and the introduction. Each of these elements has its own function and purpose. So it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them. You know what a preface is now, so let’s take a look at the other two.
Foreword – The foreword comes before the book's preface and is written by someone other than the book's author. Generally, the foreword writer is a well-known expert in the book's topic. He or she will talk about how the author has done the subject justice and explain to the potential reader why the book is worth a read. The foreword adds credibility to the book and the author.
Introduction – A book’s introduction is actually not considered part of the front matter, although it does technically come in front of the main text. The introduction broadly addresses the book's content. It should be written by the author and provide information that the reader needs to know in order to get the most out of the work.
What is the difference between a Preface vs a Prologue?
A prologue is another element that is often confused with a preface. Prologues are found in fiction books and signal the beginning of the story. They often serve to introduce the main character and grab the reader's attention. However, not every fiction book needs a prologue (or an epilogue).
Prefaces, on the other hand, are the story of the book's creation. They're the author talking directly to the reader about fact, rather than writing something from their imagination.
What is the proper order for the front of a book?
The front of a book can be confusing. Where does the copyright page go? What about acknowledgements and the title page? Well, this list should clear it up for you:
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- Table of Contents (i.e. chapter headings)
- Dedication Page
- Preface <<<
Not all books have all of these elements, but those they do have typically follow this order. To do otherwise risks looking unprofessional.
Preface of a Book: Conclusion
If you’re writing a fiction book, you can safely skip the preface. You can always write one for a later edition after the book becomes a worldwide bestseller! If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you should consider writing a preface. Ask yourself if there’s anything extraordinary about your book-writing journey. If so, write a preface and include those interesting facts. Keep it short, make it enthralling, and share your passion with the readers!