Of all the book chapters you will write, your introduction is likely to confound you the most. What should go in it? How long should it be? Is anyone even going to read it? Most authors find themselves scratching their heads over questions like these. I hope to answer them here.
A book introduction isn’t strictly necessary in every book, but most non-fiction books will benefit from having one. If you’re going to include one, it’s critical to get it right. Potential readers often skim the introduction to help them decide whether or not to buy a book. An introduction that’s engaging and compelling can clinch the sale, but a dull or meandering one can kill the reader’s interest before they’ve even glanced at Chapter 1. Having said that, some readers skip the introduction altogether, so it must also stand alone and should not establish important facts or statements essential to understanding the rest of the book. So, what does go into it?
A non-fiction book introduction has a few jobs to do:
1. Tell the reader what’s in it for them.
Most importantly, the introduction should tell the reader what they will gain from reading the book. Some introductions are highly specific in describing the book’s content, breaking it down chapter by chapter. This is especially true of how-to books that need to be read or used in a specific way. Others simply describe the life-transforming gifts the book promises to deliver. You should choose an approach that supports your material, and speaks to your reader’s needs and motivations.
2. Create interest.
The introduction must also prime the reader for the experiential journey they are about to embark upon. What will it feel like to read this book? Be consistent with the style and tone of voice that you use in the book, and don’t hold back on the charm. You must sparkle on the page and be every bit as clever, insightful or helpful as you are in the rest of the book. Think of the introduction as a blind date. Your undecided potential reader needs to figure out whether they like spending time with you enough to invest their time, attention and money in a longer-term relationship.
3. Build rapport.
Unless you’re writing a memoir, your book’s chapters will largely focus on your reader’s problem and your solution to it, rather than your own personal stories, thoughts and opinions. But the introduction is one place where it’s definitely ok to “break the fourth wall” and address your reader directly, as an author and a human being. Open up a little bit about your personal motivation for writing the book. Was there a particular “aha” moment when you realized that you needed to write it? Tell that story now. And who do you hope to help with the book? Sharing your desire to serve a particular type of person will help to forge a bond between you and your potential reader, demonstrating to them that you understand their needs and are motivated by serving their best interests.
4. Build trust.
Finally, your introduction should underscore your authority as the right person to write this book. No doubt you are a credentialed expert in the subject you’re writing about, but you can’t take it for granted that your readers know that, so use the introduction to conversationally share some details of your professional history. If you’ve been helping clients with this problem for twenty years, say so. If you played an important role in pivotal moments in your industry’s history, explain how. If you’ve conducted deep research or developed a proprietary system, tell them about it. This is not bragging, it’s putting yourself in context. You must answer the reader’s unspoken question: “Why should I listen to you?”
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the ideal length of an introduction – just make it as long as necessary to get the job done, and no longer. That could be anywhere from a single page in some cases, up to a full-length chapter if there’s a particularly fascinating back-story to share. Usually, it’s best to aim somewhere in between, leaning toward the shorter side. Certainly, you do not want to write an introduction that’s longer than your average chapter length. Just stick to the highlights, and save the detailed foundation of your book’s premise for Chapter 1.
Although your introduction is placed at the front of the book, you don’t have to write it first. In fact, many authors find it much easier to write the introduction last, sometimes even after the first round of substantive editing is complete. By that time, you’ll have found your voice and your confidence as a writer, and you’ll also be able to draw the reader’s attention to specific sections in the book.
Above all, don’t make the mistake of thinking of the introduction as a dull but necessary evil. Yes, lots of people will skip it, but that’s no excuse to treat it like a throwaway. Put your best foot forward. Take time to write it with care and confidently showcase your ideas, your personality, your history, and your dedication to the reader. Your up-front investment will pay off in reader engagement and book sales.
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