Your book needs no introduction. So don’t write one.

Photo: Stephen Coles

Nonfiction books should start with a bang. Introductions are boring. Ergo, don’t start with an introduction.

Despite the logic of this, many business and nonfiction writers start their books with an introduction. They either think it’s required, or fall victim to the fallacy that, having created a book, they need to somehow explain it.

Why an introduction is a bad idea

The opening to your book should capture the reader’s imagination immediately. It should be a story about somebody, or a bold statement like “The tide of bullshit is rising” or “It’s time we start to enjoy our work.” That opening is what gets people to read the rest of chapter 1, which is what gets them to read the rest of the book.

Chapter 1 should be the “scare-the-crap-out-of-you” chapter — the chapter that reinforces that unless you read the book, you’ll either suffer a serious problem or miss out on a wonderful opportunity.

In contrast to first chapters, introductions tend to start like this: “After 20 years of studying the world of finance and working with many financial professionals, it became clear that I needed to write a book about finance.” Snore. Introductions are typically about the author, or about the book, or the process of creating the book. Chapter 1 is about an actual idea. Start with the idea.

You have a limited amount of reader attention. Don’t squander it talking about anything other than ideas and stories, at least to start.

The other problem with introductions is that some people read them and some don’t. That means on the first page of chapter 1, you don’t know whether the reader has read the introduction or not. If you include ideas in the introduction, you might need to repeat them to get everyone together again. That creates redundancy. And it’s easy to avoid. Just don’t write an introduction.

If you’re reading this and thinking “But wait, my introduction is full of great stories and fascinating ideas,” I have a simple solution for you: Just rename the introduction “Chapter 1.”

Finally, consider your sexy table of contents. It should start with the fascinating title name of the first chapter, not the boring word “Introduction.”

Indulgent author psychology is behind most introductions

Authors often write their introduction after they’ve written the book. They feel a need to explain their own masterpiece.

This is a natural tendency.

Resist it.

Your masterpiece should stand without a need to explain it. Anything that needs explaining, you can deal with in other places in the manuscript, or at the end.

Where to put the stuff that’s normally in an introduction

Introductions typically include a variety of content that belongs elsewhere in the book. Here’s how to deal with all those bits.

  • Main idea of the book. Belongs in chapter 1, right after the powerful opening.
  • Who I am and what my background is. You can hit on these in passing, as you describe how you learned things you’re discussing (“One misconception was common among the hundreds of clients I’ve dealt with in the last 20 years”). And you can expand on your background in more detail in the “About the Author” at the end of the book.
  • Why I wrote this book. Irrelevant. People want to know why they should read it. Why you wrote it is important to you, not so much to them. Again, you can mention it in passing or include a short section on it in chapter 1.
  • How to use this book. After you’ve written persuasively about the ideas, you have the reader’s attention. Towards the end of chapter 1, you can use this attention to provide advice on how to use the book.
  • What’s in the book. Introductions often include an expanded description of the chapters that follow. You can do this at the end of chapter 1; it’s a natural lead-in to the rest of the book.
  • Your gratitude to the people who helped you. This is nice to write, but boring to read. Include it in the acknowledgments at the end.

Does anything belong before chapter 1?

If the book is a second edition, it’s often necessary to create context on what has changed since the author wrote it. If this is the case, you can write a short introduction. Second editions usually indicate the book was popular, so the reader will be willing to indulge you a little more. And unlike traditional introductions, people who skip the introduction to the second edition won’t be missing anything essential.

If you got a famous person to write a foreword, that can go before chapter 1. The whole point of that is to get the famous person’s name on the front of the book (“With a foreword by Jerry Seinfeld”). What’s actually in that foreword is irrelevant. People can skip it without missing out on anything.

The only other things that belong before chapter 1 are the elements of the front matter (title pages, copyright pages, dedications, and the table of contents). In other words — as little as possible before you hit them with the big idea.

Your idea is your introduction. Your book doesn’t need a separate introduction getting in the way. Scrap it!

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