How to Write a Preface: A Step-by-Step Guide

Does your book need a preface? Check out this step-by-step guide outlining how to write a preface to get you started.  

Before a reader gets to the first chapter of a book, they will go through several pages of introductory materials. These pages are known as the front matter. While they may seem inconsequential to the book itself, a book’s front matter is essential to the reader’s experience.

The front matter includes many potential parts, such as:

  • Title page
  • Dedication
  • Table of contents
  • Foreward
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Preface
  • Prologue

While not every book will have all these, each can be essential to introduce a book. For example, a preface is one of the pieces of the front matter in many books. A preface is an introduction to the book written by its author. It speaks directly to the reader, even if the story’s voice does not. It tells the reader important information about the book and why the author wrote it.

The preface can also provide some additional information that helps the reader better understand the book. As you prepare to write a preface for your book, if it needs one, use these steps to get it right.

Check out our guide on how to write an expository essay.

Step 1. Decide if Your Book Needs a Preface

How to write a preface: Decide if your book needs a preface
A preface is essential if you need to give the reader some important information or context to help them understand the book

While a preface can be helpful, it is unnecessary for every book. A preface is common for memoirs, academic writing, and technical books. It can also be part of a fiction story, but sometimes the author opts for a prelude or introduction. A preface is essential if you need to give the reader some important information or context to help them understand the book. It is also helpful if you need to tell the reader why you were an excellent authority to write the book or how you did your research.

Step 2. Share the Book’s Beginnings

The background behind why you began the book in the first place is good subject matter for a preface. The origin story gives details about the book’s background. This tells the reader:

  • The purpose of the book: Why did you write it?
  • The inspiration for the book: Who inspired you to write it?
  • The updates for the book: Did you update any parts of the book from a previous version?

By giving the reader insight into these essential parts of a book’s beginning, you will inspire them to be more engaged in reading the book.

Step 3. Let the Reader Know Your Challenges

Sometimes a preface is an excellent place to go through some of the challenges you faced while writing the book. For example, did some of your research not work out as you thought it would? Tell the reader about it. Were you hung up on a particular character’s plight? Let the reader in on that, too. Your readers will be more engaged with your book when they see what you went through to write it.

In addition, they will appreciate your extra effort to ensure the book is factual and accurate for research challenges. Both of these will encourage them to keep reading.

Step 4. Give the Basic Description

A preface is a place where you can describe the main characters, the book’s theme, the book’s topic, or the book’s setting. Give enough background information that the reader will want to read and will be able to understand the story or the work. Remember that this description should be a taste test, not the whole story. It also needs to remain engaging, even if you are sharing information.

Step 5. Provide Reading Suggestions

If your book requires the reader to read it in a specific way, then include those suggestions in the preface. For example, if it’s a reference work and not meant to be read cover to cover, tell the reader so. If it’s a work of fiction that requires some imagination, tell the reader that as well. Give the reader the tools they need to wholly and thoroughly digest the book, and they will enjoy reading it more.

Step 6. Tell Your Qualifications

Sometimes the preface is a place to explain why you are qualified to write the book. This reason is beneficial in academic writing, when you may need to outline your credentials and why you chose to research your topic and write about it. If you are writing an author’s preface to tell why you were a suitable writer for the job, make sure you point out your qualifications, experience, and education. You can also tell why you are passionate about the topic. This is not the place to write your entire biography, as that would be part of the back matter if you include one.

Step 7. Make It Short

Your preface should be concise. One page is best, but you can use two if necessary. Otherwise, too much additional information is excessive. Remember, this is just a tidbit that will help the reader understand your book, but it is not considered a part of it. If you have a lot of information you think should be in this part of a book, you will need to plan carefully. Consider what readers need to know about the book’s author and their motivations to understand and appreciate it and leave the rest off.

Step 8. Delve into the Historical Context

If any historical context makes the work more understandable, focus on this in the preface. In addition, the book’s front matter should draw readers into it and help them understand it better. Sharing the historical context is particularly helpful in a fiction work.

For example, in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author writes“In this book, a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of a personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”

In this part of the preface, Twain explains why his dialogues have different spelling. This historical context makes the dialogue in the book more effective and gives the reader a heads-up that there may be some challenging sections to read, but those challenges are there for a reason. Before the reader reads Chapter One, they know what to expect.

Step 9. Draw the Reader’s Attention

The preface of a book needs to be compelling. The reader should want to read the preface and then want to read the book after reading it. Mark Twain did this by adding a humorous “notice” at the beginning of his preface, which said: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” This piques the reader’s interest in the book, giving the impression that the book will have the same humor found in the preface.

Step 10. Talk About the Writing Process

How to write a preface: Talk about the writing process
If there was any part of the writing process that you found particularly challenging, show what that was and how you worked through it

You can use the preface to talk about your writing process. Some readers love to see what a writer goes through to write a book. It makes the book more personal and draws the reader in to read the rest of the work. If you publish a new book edition, consider telling the reader why you felt it needed to be updated. If there was any part of the writing process that you found particularly challenging, show what that was and how you worked through it.

Step 11. Outline Your Research Methods

For a non-fiction book, talk about your research methods. Readers want to know what you studied to find the information in the book. Therefore, your sources need to be valid, and your reader should know about them. Did you do any particular scientific research to write the book? Outline the steps you took in your preface. This will give your book authority and make it stand out amongst other books on the topic.

Step 12. Discuss the Point of View

Is your book from one particular point of view? If so, use the preface to tell that point of view and why you chose it. This will allow the reader to understand better the story and why you wrote it the way you did. You can also tell the preface from another character’s point of view, then transition into the point of view of the actual book. This preface idea allows you to give a little insight into another character, even while telling the main story from the main character’s point of view.

Step 13. Share Your Passion

One of the purposes of a preface is to get the reader to want to read the book. So, if you have a particular passion that eventually led to researching and writing your book, tell the reader about it. Passion is catching, and you may find that readers get inspired by your love for your topic. That love translates into wanting to read the book and learn more about the topic.

Step 14. Write the Preface Last

Even though the book’s preface comes at the beginning, you should write it last. Writing it last allows you to think about what information the reader needs to understand the rest of the book. It prevents you from including information in the preface that you end up including in the actual book, which leaves you with the need to cut something out of the preface. Writing the preface at the end can help you connect it with the rest of the book. You can keep the tone in line with the book’s tone and ensure it is an asset to the rest of the work.

Step 15. Transition to the Body

A good preface is, in many ways, like a book introduction. It should transition smoothly into the body of the book, drawing readers in and making them want to turn the page to Chapter One. Conclude your preface with some transition that opens the book for the reader, if you can. This segway will encourage the reader to keep going and make the very first words of the book engaging.

Step 16. Edit the Preface

After you write it, edit the preface carefully. Proofreading is essential because this section of the front matter is the book’s first part many readers will read. While it may not be an essential part of the book’s creation, it is integral to getting people to read it. The best way to proofread and edit the preface is to set it aside for a few days after you write the first draft. Then, come back to it and see where it can be improved. You can also ask a fellow author or your book’s editor to proofread and edit it. IF you are self-publishing, consider hiring an editor for this stage of the writing process.

Step 17. Tie in the Afterword

If your book includes an afterword, consider connecting the two. For example, if you are writing a book of fiction from the first person point of view, consider writing a preface and an afterword from a different character’s point of view, such as the grandchild of the main character looking back over the stories they grew up with. Tying in the afterword like this makes the front and back content an essential part of the plot. It keeps the reader engaged throughout the book and prevents them from ignoring these parts instead of just reading the story.

Looking for more? Read our definitive guide on how to write a book!