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BK Blog Post
Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.
Today I am going to dive into one of the cuter mistakes people make when they are writing their books, rather than ones that make me want to pull my hair out! Positivity! Hurrah!
A mistake that frequently finds its way into the manuscript proposals I review is to confuse the various parts of what we refer to as the "front matter." I will explain that confusion in a moment, but I want to quickly define front matter: the parts of the book that are placed at the begining before chapter one, and are deliniated as follows: the Foreword, the Preface, and the Introduction. There are other sections of books, such as the prologue and epilogue (which are pieces of fiction books, not non-fiction) the afterword, acknowledgements, citations, etc, but these are more commonly understood, so I am only going to tackle the ones that people tend to confuse.
Quick? Who writes the foreword? This is where most people get mixed up. The author of the book does NOT write their own foreword. Surprised? Well, no one teaches this in high school English, so you get a pass on not knowing that one. The foreword (not forward either- fore [before]+ word [the words of the book]) is written by someone who is preferably more famous than the author, or has something to offer the book in the way of framing it. For example, our recent book Leadership for a Fractured World has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. It is basically an extended endorsement of the book, and a way to bolster your credibility. The foreword writer will have read the book and writes a short essay on why they think the book is important. Another example is The Nonviolence Handbook. We had a former US Army Colonel, Ann Wright, who is now a peace activist, write the foreword for this book, since it sent a message about the universality of the topic. A former army officer endorses a book on Nonviolence- a powerful statement.
The Preface is written by the author. It comes after the foreword and before the introduction. If you have ever started down the path to writing a book, you probably had the instinct to explain to your reader the long life-path or fantastic event that inspired you to write this book. The preface is where that story goes. The simplest definition of a preface is the place where you explain why you wrote the book. It should also be short- essay length rather than chapter length. By chapter one you want to dive straight into the material of the book. A reader starting with chapter one wants the heart of the book right away, they do not want to read a long, rambling personal essay in order to figure out what you are saying. If they want that story, they can read the preface.
The introduction is similar to the preface, but it is purely about the content of the book. Instead of telling you the author’s background and the personal journey that lead to the writing of the book, the introduction tells you background on the subject matter of the book itself. If there was a particularly salient moment in history, for example, that created the circumstances that gave rise to issues in your book, that would go in the introduction. If there is a theory- scientific, philosophical, etc, that underpins your argument, you would put that in the introduction. In essence, you are setting the stage without getting into the heart of the content.
So, why all this structure?
Almost every proposal that I see begins with some combination of this background information. It is a natural instinct to give context and framing to your story when you begin telling people who are wholly unfamiliar with it. However, the main body of the work, chapters one through n should be tightly structured and focused on your message. The foreword, preface, and introduction are there specifically to give you a forum for explaining the context.