One of Elmore Leonard's celebrated 10 Rules of Writing states: “Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” Leonard is on to something here. Just what are all those preliminary essays front-loaded into so many books? Can you skip them? What distinguishes one from another? Can you skip them? Are they there merely to whet your appetite, like some sort of literary antipasti? Seriously, can you skip them?

Allow me to elucidate these issues. Here I will teach you to distinguish an introduction from a foreword from a prologue. But before I do that, I'd like to preface my remarks with a word about the preface.

The preface is where the author lays out the reasons he or she wrote the book. In keeping with an unwritten, unspoken, but universally observed law, money is never mentioned. The preface seems aptly named, with the prefix “pre” meaning “in front of,” and the word “face” meaning, I guess, “face.” So the preface is literally “in front of your face.” Open any book to its preface and you'll see how true this is. Of course, as you continue reading, the rest of the book will also be in front of your face (if you're doing it right). But we can't call the entire book “preface,” can we? That would make no sense.

The introduction is as different from the preface as a hot dog is from a frankfurter. It was created, separate and distinct from the preface, to answer a very pressing need. Unfortunately no one alive today remembers what that was. The introduction also provides recourse for superstitious authors whose books turn out to be 13 chapters in length. Not wishing to tempt fate, they will designate Chapter 1 the Introduction and renumber the other chapters 1—12, in the hope of avoiding bad luck and misfortune. Truman Capote is known to have done this with the final draft of In Cold Blood. Two days later, he was run over by the Hampton Jitney, so the effectiveness of this ploy is still in question.

If the introduction and the preface are the respective hot dog and frankfurter of preliminary essays, then the foreword may be considered the wiener. It is unique in that it is not written by the author. Invariably the foreword is written by someone more famous than the author. Indeed, the foreword exists solely as an excuse for the publisher to put the name of someone more famous than the author on the front of a book—often in larger type—in the hope of racking up collateral sales from confused consumers. It was actually invented for just this purpose by the Dodd Mead marketing department back in the 1930s.

Other preliminaries:

Acknowledgments: A list of all the patsies the author took advantage of while writing the book. They may have provided expert advice; specialized information; pocket money; meals; use of a car, guestroom or vacation home; and in some instances, may have actually given birth to the author. In most cases, they are flattered just to be mentioned in a book and are only too happy to overlook the fact that they've been hosed.

List of maps: This is optional, especially for books that have no maps in them.

Author's note: Generally relates banal information like, “Most of what follows is true” or “Some characters are composites of real people” or “The author wore kabuki makeup throughout the writing of this book.” [The author's note should not be confused with the author's reminder note, which typically says things like “Pick up dry cleaning,” “Use Spellcheck,” “Change agents” or “Pawn National Book Award.” An author is more likely to commit this sort of note to a Post-It than to a book.]

Which brings us back to the prologue. Elmore Leonard warns against opening with a prologue, but I trust he won't mind if we close with it. There's really not much to say. “What's past is prologue,” as the Bard has it. So just read this again from the beginning.

Author Information
Laurence Hughes used to work for a big publishing company and now writes the blogs Book Flack at Large ( and Classics Rock! (