Craft a Compelling Book Intro
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Whether you’re prepping to enjoy a book or a movie, oftentimes you’ve already read about the story line online, listened to friends’ impressions or looked at a Best Seller’s List. Even then, a buddy’s comment might have you rethinking your choice.
Readers often want the “trailer” experience too, which is what early content in a book such as a preface and introduction helps provide. If you’re confused about what goes into these elements that are in a book's front matter, you’re definitely not alone. In this post, I’ll recap what they’re about and how to choose the best fit and focus for winning readers over to adding your literary baby to their bookshelves.
The Basic Intro Elements
The Chicago Manual of Style will be our starting point for this “tour,” as it’s the traditional style guide of book editors. The 17th edition of Chicago, aka CMOS, distinguishes a preface from an introduction as follows:
A preface is the author’s own condensed statement regarding the book content, emphasizing how and why the author came to write the book, and possibly information about research methods (if that will help prep readers before delving into the content). Sometimes brief acknowledgements of editors and others who helped birth the book come in a traditional preface, as may permissions for reuse of content. In fiction, a prologue serves the same purpose as a preface (and often an epilogue will bookend the end of the chapters).
An introduction is mostly used in non-fiction, and traditionally focuses on the book’s subject matter itself. The intro provides a framework to help readers get their bearings on the topic before delving in. An author might also use an introduction to tell readers whether it’s OK to jump around book chapters and other details on approaching the content. In more traditional books, the introduction is not in the front matter, but is the first book chapter. That chapter may also include definitions of key terms or concepts.
To boil that down, the preface is more like a conversation with the readers that provides compelling backstory on the book, while the introduction is more of a backgrounder to provide context, when needed, right before readers dig in to book details.
Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it (and pretty ho hum)? Well, grabbing on to the reality of how these two elements get used in books is a bit slipperier. For instance, in a book that I proofread for a hybrid publishing house about the life lessons espoused by a non-profit, there was an About the Organization section in the front matter instead of a preface or introduction. That about section combined traditional elements of both intro types, introduced a secondary theme about the challenges of establishing a philanthropy, and paid homage to the author’s father.
In other words, there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule about what goes into the front matter of a book. What matters more is that you cover those elements that will likely interest and inform readers regarding you and the topic. So, you can make this element suit the project.
Making Wise Intro Choices
However, some intro choices are wiser than others. Here are guidelines for considering how to craft an intro that wins over readers who might be on the fence about heading to a digital or physical register with your work.
Keep the intro focused. When I interned at a major daily newspaper early in my writing and editing career, the assistant managing editor once spent close to an hour helping me create the first paragraph for a story because of how critical first impressions are for capturing readers’ attention. If you want to help keep readers engaged in an intro, that means mostly summing things up rather than wading deep into content details.
Keep the intro compelling. If the book came about in an odd way that may pique readers’ curiosity, consider covering that. If you’re sharing an unusual viewpoint, by all means, persuade them to join you in seeing why you’ve developed that perspective and why they should consider it. The intro isn’t a place to use tricks like bolding or italicizing lots of words for emphasis, asking lots of questions or ending umpteen sentences with exclamation points. Those are considered gimmicks done by authors who haven’t yet learned how to make the best use of words, and they often turn off readers.
As in other book sections, making text energetic involves taking time to whittle the prose down and find precise, concise words to get points across, finding compelling action verbs, and taking steps to bring the content alive, such as centering the introduction around a life story that gets at the crux of what you’re covering (as appropriate), and sharing a few vivid details that help illustrate the angle you’re taking on the subject.
Pay attention (kinda) to length. Because you’re trying to entice the reader, as noted above, you don’t want to go overboard with intro text. But I’ve seen an editor note that an introduction should be about half the length of an average chapter, and that's a bit too one-size-fits-all. As an example, an author of a book that I proofread about how to handle the financial side of divorce needed to get to the facts quickly for that demographic, who might be in emotional overwhelm and just wanting answers. So, her introduction was all of 400 words, and the chapters, closer to 3,000 words. Meanwhile, for a book by a dentist who was presenting non-traditional ideas on oral hygiene, the preface itself was close to 3,000 as part of making her case for those ideas before presenting them. That length was still about a half or a third the length of individual chapters.
Think through intro format choices. First off, let’s cover an element that you may have heard about that isn’t written by the author. Among the dozen or so elements that can appear in a book’s front matter is the foreword; it is words by someone else that come before the chapters, and it focuses just on selling readers on the author and their work. If you have connections with an expert who’s admired in the field you’re covering, such as the head of NASA or Oprah Winfrey, you could ask (and often pay) them to read the final content before publication and provide praise by creating a foreword. Authors may also include a praise section with quick quotes from others along the same complimentary lines.
Setting those elements aside, here's an added distinction should you decide your work needs only one introductory element. Introductions can carry more of a sense of formality. Non-fiction books for lay audiences (including self-help books) and academic works traditionally have an introduction. As noted earlier, the author’s lens often focuses more in an introduction on providing a framework for what the book covers. Meanwhile, a preface is more common for fiction and for memoirs, such as one I provided developmental and copy editing for that was half memoir and half poems. Those types of books don't usually need and introduction to ground readers in concepts, terminology and such.
Playing Outside the Lines
The conventional rules often go by the wayside, though. For instance, the dental book I mentioned earlier that was written for the general public had a preface. This may have reflected the fact that the author wanted to have more of a conversation with readers to help introduce them to her views that weren’t mainstream in her field. Prefaces, therefore, can help an author with credibility.
In another break from tradition, I’ve seen key terms or concepts separated out from an introduction, as was done in that philanthropy-focused book mentioned earlier. In that case, the seven key life lessons that the non-profit focuses on were defined before the meat of the book, with each chapter covering one of those lessons.
Ultimately, what matters most isn’t what you call the introductory element(s). It’s about you, and perhaps the editor you hire, developing a big picture sense of which features best fit seamlessly into the book’s overall structure, dovetail with the formality of your writing and the topic, and fulfill your audience’s information needs. Puzzling through different intro options, then, provides another chance to better define your work, which is never a bad thing.
By Barbra Rodriguez