What’s the difference between a Foreword, a Preface, a Prelude, and an Introduction?

The first 40 pages of your book are crucial for grabbing readers’ attention and keeping them reading.

But your book actually begins before chapter one.

What does that mean?

Introducing: Front Matter

There are several opening sections of any book that come before chapter one. They are called front matter.

The heavy hitter reference books widely used by the publishing industry, such as Words into Type and the Chicago Manual of Style, will define every single page of front matter and tell you what the significance is of each one.

But that’s far too much detail for the average author.

To you, what’s important is a few sections called the foreword, prologue, and introduction.

But what are these sections and, more importantly, what do they do?

Are they required? What’s their function? Why do they have different names in different books?

Front matter can cause a lot of confusion.

Let’s straighten things out.

Does Your Book Need a Foreword?

Notice how this word is spelled: fore word. It means “a word before.” (Not forward, as in, “located ahead.”)

This “word before” is where someone more well-known than you writes a few short pages about your brilliance. It’s like getting a great reference from a respected mentor, or a boost from an influencer.

In other words, it’s invaluable. It can do for your book what your great writing (and story, idea, method, etc.) can’t do on its own: get it into other people’s hands.

Who Writes the Foreword?
Ideally, someone you admire in your field writes the foreword. Your dream author or a public figure. You ask them because you know that their readers or followers will enjoy and benefit from what you’re doing.

(Yes, it likely will be you asking for this favor! So start networking now.)

You can just imagine what would happen if Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Gabby Bernstein or another best-selling motivational writer wrote the forward for your self-help book.

First, you would be over the moon.

But also, your publisher will be extremely happy. Because a foreword from any of these highly influential people would effectively introduce you to an audience that won’t have heard of you.

And the word of this well-known person is like a gold stamp of approval.

In essence, a foreword introduces you to a much wider audience. It validates your book for people who don’t know you. It says, “this book is worth reading; check it out,” and it comes from someone people already know and like.

IMPORTANT! Getting a mega-superstar such as Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, or Gabby Bernstein to write the foreword for your book is a long shot.

Your foreword can also be written by someone who has influence or a more established track record than you do in your field (or in a related filed).

So, shoot for the stars – and have a back up plan.

Does Your Book Need a Preface?

If you’re a first-time author, the answer to “does your book need a foreword?” is pretty clear (yes!). But the answer to “does your book need a preface?” is trickier.

Because the truth is, a preface is not always required.

First, let’s look at what a preface does.

In narrative non-fiction, such as memoirs and reported first-person investigations, a preface serves to quickly introduce the heart of the matter. What is the author’s personal stake in the story or the issue?

  • Memoir: first person, “slice of life” stories
  • Reported non-fiction: researched or investigated books on an issue that the author is passionate or knowledgeable about

For example, in the New York Times best-selling memoir, Educated, by Tara Westover, the preface introduces the author’s bigger or “meta” issue: that, given her isolated upbringing in rural Idaho, Westover had to learn to find her way “home” by herself.

In the memoir, Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro, the preface is the first one-and-a-half pages that show us how the author always wondered who she really was. (In the book, she suddenly discovers her father was not her biological father.)

In reported or researched non-fiction, the preface shows what the author’s personal stake was in writing the book. How did Michael Pollan get interested in the subject of psyilocybins (for his book How to Change Your Mind)? Why did he take it on? What compelled him? What were the circumstances?

Some people are driven to investigate a subject, and others, such as reporters, are given a story assignment that then becomes much bigger and becomes a book. The preface tells this story.

In memoir, because there is a lot of chronological forward movement, authors often want to give readers a quick hit right up front. This quick hit tells them what’s at stake.

For example:

– Will Tara Westover figure out how to find her way home?

– Will Dani Shapiro find out who her real father is and how will that effect who she thinks she is?

Then, once you’re hooked on the gripping situation the author finds herself in, you are ready to dive into the backstory that sets up the situation. You can’t wait to find out how things unfold.

(Note: Sometimes the preface is called a prelude, but technically a prelude refers to music, not books.)

Does Your Book Need an Introduction?

Many books need an introduction.

But, interestingly, a few don’t. A memoir does not need an introduction (a short preface does the trick). Sometimes a memoir doesn’t need either a preface or an introduction. Your agent or editor will advise you.

Fiction and poetry also do not. If any introductory material is needed for purely creative work (and often it isn’t), it can be done in a brief preface.

But many books do need to be introduced. These books include prescriptive non-fiction (such as self-help, cook books, how-to books, etc.) and some narrative non-fiction.

Wherever the author is presenting a method, program or system of some kind, an introduction helps to orient readers to the contents of the book, and how they can use the book most effectively.

Recap: Preface vs. Introduction

  • A preface introduces how the author came to write the book – their drive, circumstances, personal stake in it, etc.
  • An introduction introduces the content of the book and what the reader can expect to get out of it.

However, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, some books blend the content of the preface in with the content of the introduction.

A Blended Preface or Introduction

You may decide to just have one or two preliminary elements, such as a foreword and an introduction, or a foreword and a preface.

Or just a preface. Or just an introduction.

In this case, plan out the preface or introduction so that it both introduces your personal stake in writing the book as well as the purpose of the book and what the reader can expect to get out of it.

Often, a blended preface/introduction will start with a dramatic personal story that serves to grab readers’ attention at the same time as showing what their personal stake was in writing the book.

Then, the rest of it outlines the purpose of the book, its value to readers and ends with a section on how to use the book for the greatest effect.

How do You Choose Between a Preface or an Introduction?

These days, content is coming at us from all directions and we don’t have the bandwidth to engage with even a fraction of it. Our powers of concentration are eroded.

So the general rule of thumb is to do more with less. Write a shorter book. Break chapters into smaller chunks. Remove the barriers to engagement.

With this in mind—and where it makes sense—work in smaller units. That includes your book’s front matter.

If you decide your book needs all three elements – foreword, preface and introduction—keep them all on the short side. Below I give you some suggested page counts.

  • Foreword: 1 – 3 pages
  • Preface: 1 – 6 pages
  • Introduction: under 10 pages

Keep in mind that these are not hard-and-fast guidelines. Every book has its particular requirements.

If you just have a preface/introduction, do your best to keep it under 10 pages.

That said, on checking Michael Pollen’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence I found that his preface (a blended preface), runs 20 pages or so.

There are no hard-and-fast rules. And — he is Michael Pollan (a very well-established writer).

What are your questions when it comes to the front matter of your book?

What is your biggest challenge in writing a preface, introduction or a blended version?