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LostInParadise's avatar

Should the preface of a book come before or after the table of contents?

Asked by LostInParadise (27838points) April 10th, 2015

Okay, this is not a burning issue of our time, but it irks me when I can’t get immediately to the table of contents. I have seen books and papers that use both approaches. A google search shows that those who talk about such matters seem to be in agreement that the preface should come first, because it should talk about things related to how the book came to be written rather than the contents of the book.

I take a much more pragmatic view. The first things I want to know about a book are its title, author and copyright or publication date, which all can be conveniently found at the beginning. Then I want to know how the rest of the book is laid out, which should be in the table of contents. I want to see listed in the contents if there is a preface, or perhaps several for the different editions, or a foreword or a list of acknowledgements or a list of illustrations. Mostly this stuff is useful to know so I can skip over them and start reading the actual book.

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10 Answers

Mimishu1995's avatar

I agree that the table of contents should come first. The first thing I want to know is what is actually inside the book, not some lengthy introduction of why the author wrote the book and yada yada.

I often skip the preface anyway.

filmfann's avatar

Preface after table of contents.

Strauss's avatar

Wikipedia: Within an English-language book, the table of contents usually appears after the title page, copyright notices, and, in technical journals, the abstract; and before any lists of tables or figures, the foreword, and the preface.

If Wikipedia says it, it’s got to be true!

David_Achilles's avatar

I’ve looked at various guides online. They seem to disagree about the order of the preface vs. the table of contents. Publishers vary in their formatting guidelines, univeristies vary in their guidelines on thesis writing. So if you’re a writer wishing to submit a manuscript I would consult each publisher’s guidelines. If you’re simply a reader anxious to get on with things, well you’ll have to deal with it. :)

I did find more cases where it said the Table of Contents should come first. It seems to be more common than the other way around. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends this. Some book publishing guides say the preface should come first.
For example:
https://selfpublishingmadeeasy.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/the-parts-of-a-book-for-self-published-authors/

It’s funny that you ask about prefaces because I remember a particularly tiresome assignment in my first year of college writing class where our professor made us write about the value of prefaces so I had to learn about their many functions. Maybe someday you’ll get over your aversion? Here are some possible uses for prefaces you may (or may not) find interesting.

“The preface can include all or any of the following:

1. A little description of the book in general lines, without unveiling the plot, the characters (if it’s a fiction work), or the conclusions. Rather than revealing too much, always leave room for a little bit of mystery. Make your readers curious enough to want to read the book. Intrigue them. Talk about the questions you ask in the book but let them find the answers themselves by reading it.

2. The reason why you wrote the book – in this part you can explain how you got the idea of writing the book and which were the decisive factors that made you commit yourself to such a complex task. You can also refer to the origin or genesis of your work.

3. The purpose of your book – Point out what your potential readers would gain if they read your book and all the benefits they would get from it. Explain how it would help them, entertain them or enrich them (either materially or spiritually).

4. Refer to your target audience. Whom did you have in mind when you wrote your book? Why did you choose to write for that particular audience? These are a few questions you can answer in your preface.

5. The reason why you chose to write about that particular subject (e.g. you are very familiar with it, you were interested in it, it is close to your heart, you are intrigued or fascinated by it, etc.)

6. Resources and sources of inspiration. Talk about what inspired you in writing the book, the resources you’ve used in your work (e.g. bibliography, websites, etc), and your experience and knowledge accumulated through journeys, study or research.

7. How long it took you to write the book

8. How you feel about your work. Explain what makes you feel like that. Talk about what you’ve learned and about how writing this book has helped you as an author and as a human being.

9. Advice on how to read the book. Explain how your book is structured. Include any special notes related to the structure or the content.

10. Experiences you had or incidents that occurred during the writing period.

11. Acknowledgements – express your gratitude by thanking the people who helped you and encouraged you in the process of writing your book. ”

Source: http://www.writingjug.com/2009/09/how-to-write-good-preface.html

elbanditoroso's avatar

This isn’t going to directly answer your question, but I just want to register my disgust for long, weepy, sermony, self-revealing prefaces.

To me, a preface ought to give some (by no means ALL) of the concepts noted by @David_Achilles . But these should be fairly terse and to the point. I really have no interest in reading about the extended childhood of the author and the quarrels he had with his parents, before I get to the book itself.

2–3 pages, maximum.

Same with acknowledgments. I have read some acknowledgment sections that go on for 20 pages. Not interested.

LostInParadise's avatar

@David_Achilles , I am not totally opposed to reading the preface. If it is done concisely, as @elbanditoroso suggests, it may contain useful information, but I want the table of contents in front of it. For example, if the book is a textbook and refers to a previous section, I would like to be able to quickly open to the TOC and get the page number for the referenced section.

David_Achilles's avatar

LostinParadise If you frequently refer to the TOC why don’t you just put a Post-it flag on it to make it easier to flip to the page?

Totally in agreement that many prefaces go on and on and are boring and mainly filled with acknowledgments for people that I do not know or care about. But I figure, it’s written for the author with intentions to show gratitude to those who’ve helped him/her along the way. It’s more for them than for us.

I will scan the preface to see if it says anything interesting and sometimes I am rewarded with tidbits or backstories that enhance my appreciation of the book. Sometimes not, of course. Especially not in textbooks. :)

dappled_leaves's avatar

I just grabbed the three non-fiction books within grabbing range, and all three have the preface or introduction after the table of contents.

Personally, I have no preference. The table of contents will never be the first page of any book anyway, so there’s no “quick flipping” advantage, as far as I can see. I do enjoy a preface (even a lengthy one) if it’s well-written and the information complements the book itself. My opinion on this has changed greatly over the years – I find I want more perspectives as I go on.

If the preface is simply flattery, either of the book’s author or the preface author, then I’ll skip it. Likewise, I skip lengthy acknowledgements.

flutherother's avatar

I found the same with the books I looked at. The contents came first then any acknowledgements then the preface or introduction.

Zaku's avatar

Unless there is a requirement or compelling reason to the contrary: Preface after table of contents, because the table of contents would tend to be used more often than the preface, and is used to find other things (including the preface), so it makes sense to have it immediately available after the identifying information. It’s also basic information hierarchy:

1. What’s this book?
2. What’s in this book?
3. Things to say before getting to the content.
4. The content.
5. Notes, bibliography, appendices, etc.

Putting the preface before the TOC means one has to flip through several pages hunting for the TOC, which is silly/disorganized.

The page linked above (on Wordpress…) that suggests preface before TOC does not strike me as the most logical or well-thought out source, and offers no reasoning.

The Chicago Manual of Style would very much seem that sort of thing (thoughtful, considered, intelligent), and says TOC before preface.

Of course, one can order one’s own book how one wants… if someone has a reason to put the preface first, they may… but I don’t see any reasons, even on the site that says to.

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