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Writing

Writing 101: How to Write a Preface for a Book

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

After you’ve put the finishing touches on your book, you’ll likely want to sit down and write a preface—basically, a story about how you came to write that book. A preface is a short introductory narrative in which a book’s author explains their motives for telling a particular story.

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What Is a Preface?

A preface is an introductory section of a book that comes before the main text. Written by the author, a preface is meant to draw readers in by offering information about the author’s experience writing the book, the inspiration behind the subject matter, the writing process, the purpose of the story, and historical context for the material.

What’s the Difference Between a Preface, Prologue, and a Foreword?

A preface, prologue, and foreword are all a part of a book’s front matter—the introductory section of a book, often numbered with Roman numerals, that also includes the title page, table of contents, and introduction. (The back matter contains any end-of-book sections like an epilogue or afterword.) Despite their close proximity, prefaces, prologues, and forewords serve very different purposes.

  • Preface: Most often found in nonfiction books or academic writing, a preface is written from the point of view of the author. This short introductory statement reveals information about why the author wrote the book. A writer might also talk about themselves and why they are qualified to write about this topic.
  • Prologue: Typically found in works of fiction, a prologue is usually written from a character’s point of view, either the main character or a character who brings a different perspective to the story. This introductory literary device gives the reader additional information that will help their comprehension of the story. This can include background information on characters, events that took place before the story begins, or information that establishes the setting of the story.
  • Foreword: A foreword is an introductory section of a book written by someone other than the author, usually a prominent figure like an expert on the subject matter, another author, or a critic. A foreword lends credibility to the book and author by praising the work, the writer, or both. A foreword can sometimes be a type of literary marketing tool publishers use to increase the profile of a book and attract readers.
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What Is the Purpose of a Preface in a Book?

While not a part of the story itself, prefacing your narrative is an opportunity for an author to address readers directly and give them more information outside of the main text. In one or two pages, an author’s preface is meant to:

  • Explain why the author chose to write about this topic
  • Reveal their motivation and inspiration for writing the book
  • Describe the process of researching the topic of the book
  • Outline the process of writing the book, including any challenges and how long it took
  • Introduce a new edition of the book and discusses what’s been changed
  • Provide information regarding relevant events that happened after an earlier edition of the book was published

How to Write a Preface in 4 Steps

When you’re writing your book, you might want to add a bit of context for the reader or provide information to help them understand the significance of the story. If your book needs an expository section to support your story and explain why you wrote it, you need a preface. Here are four tips for writing a great preface:

1. Brevity Is Better.

Readers often like to get right to the body of the book. Keep your preface brief. One to two pages is the ideal length to get your points across. Proofreading helps with editing out redundant thoughts and excess information.

2. Be Interesting.

Readability is important when it comes to a preface. Make it interesting or your audience will skip it entirely. In the preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain described his attempt to give each character their own dialect depending on where they were from. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, offer interesting tidbits that pique the reader’s curiosity.

3. Think of a Preface as a “Making of.”

Do you ever watch the “making of” or “behind the scenes” features that often accompany a movie? A preface has a similar relationship to a story. It reveals interesting information about how you assembled the book, which is especially useful in non-fiction writing. You might explain to your readers how you uncovered unique information in your research. You could describe any challenges you overcame across while writing. Or you might walk them through your own journey to becoming interested in the subject of the book.

4. Inspire Readers by Sharing Your Passion.

Writing your own book is a labor of love. As the author of the book, tell the reader what triggered your interest in the content of the book and why you wanted to write about it. That passion can rub off. Readers can find inspiration in your motivation for writing and become eager to read what you discovered.

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