Monday, May 10, 2010

How to Write a Foreword

Several times a week, I receive a note from someone thanking me for helping them to write a foreword. It all dates back to a couple of blog posts I wrote several years ago after I was forced (forced, mind you!) to write a foreword for someone Veddy Veddy Important, sign Mr. VVI's name to it, and watch it help sell a ton o' books.

I thought it might be useful to revisit the Foreword posts and streamline them into an updated version. So, without further ado, I present Foreword Writing 101:

What the Heck is a Foreword?

The foreword is a strange literary beast. It introduces the larger work and / or the author – much as an emcee introduces a keynote speaker. It doesn’t contribute any additional information about the book’s subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book’s existence.

Often, the foreword of a book is written by someone that the general public recognizes more readily than the actual author. A foreword may be only a few paragraphs long – yet the foreword’s writer may share byline space on the cover. (“With foreword by Mr. Veddy Veddy Important.”)

A foreword’s primary purpose is to boost sales by establishing credibility. It’s a means of introducing someone who may not be well-known via an expert in the field or a celebrity -- who, by dint of being famous, is an expert on everything.

Forewords often have a personal, chatty feel to them. The foreword writer may reminisce about how he or she met the author of the main project, thus adding weight to the author’s credentials (“Oooh! He knows Mr. VVI! He must know what he’s writing about…”).

Forewords also tend to involve anecdotes that – ideally – have something to do with the work at hand. These generally serve as a practical or real-world example of whatever themes or ideas may be expressed later in the book itself. Again, they serve to simply reinforce that the writer knows his or her stuff.

Why Me, O Lord? Why Me?

If you’ve been asked to write a foreword to a book, kudos and congratulations are in order. Forewords aren’t written by just anyone, you know. Generally, the only people who are asked to write such things are Those Who Matter.

You have been asked to write a foreword because you have paid your dues in some manner. Maybe you are a recognizable name within a certain field. Perhaps you have distinguished yourself in a way that is relevant to the book’s subject. Perchance you’re just the most famous person the author knows and he or she is calling in a favor.

So Why Should I Write a Foreword?

A foreword isn’t all about the book it introduces. If done correctly, the foreword can be as valuable a tool for the person writing it as for the author of the actual book.

To begin with, writing a foreword keeps the writer’s name in front of the public. This can be especially useful if there is significant lag time before another major project (book, album, movie…) that features the foreword’s writer is to be released. It is also a plus if the person writing the foreword is not known primarily as a writer. It can broaden the writer’s audience and, perhaps, appeal to a whole new segment of the population.

The foreword writer has the opportunity to remind people of why he or she is well-known – or at least qualified to write a foreword to a work – in the first place. A simple “author of 100 Secrets of the Super Stars” after the writer’s name at the end of the foreword serves as a frame of reference and solidifies credibility.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you ever wanted to know about a foreword. It’s a means of introducing an author and a new work to the world, while keeping the foreword writer in the public eye.

Yay you! Now what do you do?

Step 1: What Am I Endorsing Anyway?

If possible, get your hands on the manuscript you’ll be writing the foreword to. Since a foreword is the print equivalent of a permanent endorsement, it behooves you to know what sort of thing you're giving a big Thumbs Up.

If you are the conscientious sort, and if it interests you, read it. If you’re not (or it doesn’t), at least skim the Table of Contents or read a random chapter on something you find worthwhile.

Step 2: Find Something -- Anything -- Remotely Relevant to the Topic

Write out a short anecdote about something that happened in your life that has some bearing – no matter how far-fetched – on what the book is about. If you’re not sure of the book’s purpose, write about something that relates to the chapter you just read.

Step 2.5: Brag

Feel free to name-drop shamelessly throughout the foreword. If you won an Olympic medal, reference an Olympic event. If you defended a famous celebrity in a murder trial, mention it. Don’t hesitate to remind people why you are well-known in the first place – just in case they can’t remember why they know you. (The public is notoriously dim-witted, with a frighteningly short attention span.)

Step 3: Make Introductions

Now, say something about the author. Have you met? How long have you known each other (or known OF each other)? Can you relate a personal, non-humiliating anecdote about the author? What about telling of something the author did that affected you?

Remember, part of your job is to introduce the author to the world. Do your job as well as possible.

If you don’t know the author, rather than admitting that you’re writing for a total stranger, talk about the relevance of the project and rave about how much you believe in its validity. If you can’t do that, perhaps you’re not the one to be writing this particular piece of prose…

Step 4: Circular Reasoning

Finally, you will appear tres literary and oh-so-clever if you can reference an idea from your opening paragraph again at the end. Think of it as bringing the whole foreword full circle.

If, for instance, you related a story that involves your mother, something as simple as “I know Mom would approve” will do the trick. If you talked about a particularly odious elementary school teacher, you might try something like “If you see Mrs. Schaffer, tell her I know who put the tack on her chair… and I ain’t telling!”

Remember, a foreword is like a letter of introduction from one friend to another. It’s best if it’s a bit chatty, engaging, and personal. Tell tales. Spin a yarn or two. Open a tiny little window into a personal moment. The more readable you make it, the more people will read it, rather than skipping it entirely and diving straight into the book. And that, of course, is the whole point!


Anonymous said...

Excellent advice and well-written to boot! Thanks very much!

Despr8caregiver said...

Thanks. This is very helpful. I just finished the first foreword I have ever written--with your help. You validated my instincts and helped me to do the job without going overboard, and I appreciate it. I couldn't find anything else on line nearly as much help.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am humbly happy that I was able to be of some help. Congratulations on your first foreword. Here's to many more!

acoustica said...

very useful, thank you very much.

but do you mind to post the example foreword next time?

I'm having a hard time finding good words for it

Ami Hendrickson said...


For an example of a foreword that works, I suggest you check out George Morris' foreword to Geoff Teall's book: You can browse the pages & read the foreword in the e-book online. Hope this is helpful!

Eric Morrow said...

Thanks for the great advice! Just wrote my first foreword based on your recommendations.

Ami Hendrickson said...


I'm glad you found the advice helpful and actionable. Congratulations on being asked to write a foreword. And thanks for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks you so much! This helped me a ton!

Victor Beck said...

Please wish me luck, I am about to write my very first Foreword, for the book of a friend and colleague. To say that I feel somewhat intimidated is an understatement, but I am going to try and follow your advice.

IluhaBratan said...

Great work writing this guide!
I truly enjoyed reading it.
Had to write a foreword for my research paper now, and you really helped, to make it "alive" - not just banal bunch of paragraphs. Thanks a lot!