Your first chapter might feel like a throwaway, perhaps written as a sample to accompany your book proposal in hopes of a contract. However, the intro matters. It gives readers their first impressions of you as a writer and your book as a whole. That may sound a little daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Like most forms of writing, a good nonfiction introduction follows a set of (ironically) unwritten rules.
- Failing to follow the “introduction” road map. At least for academic books, most intros contain the same elements: An “intro” to the intro, statement of purpose, justification, brief background and/or literature review, relevant theories that guide the research, a description of the method/approach and an overview of the chapters in the book. Choosing to skip one of these critical components will likely stall you up in the revising process or if you make it through, leave your readers wondering why you omitted an important part of the set up.
- Using too much jargon. This is an error I see mostly in student work and early-career scholars, who are eager to use the vocab of the discipline and to “sound smart.” Convey your ideas in plain language, saving the jargon for spots that make sense (i.e. in your theory section). Even then, it should be defined and connected to your overarching topic.
- Lacking a sense of purpose or direction. Your chapter and book need to have a clearly-stated purpose and flow. I recommend describing your book to a relative, a scholar outside of your discipline, and someone in your field. Talking through your book’s main objective with various audiences will give you a better idea of what you are doing and why, which you can then communicate in the first chapter.
- Giving too much away. I realize that you’re writing nonfiction, not a murder mystery. That said, avoid saying too much about what you’ve found in your primary research right away in the introduction. You can outline what you will do, but shouldn’t have conclusions in chapter 1.
- Providing too much background/literature/theory. The introduction is an introduction. If any of these sections becomes too lengthy (more than a page or two), they will take away from the chapter’s purpose of setting up the book. Consider shortening your sections and incorporating them into later chapters of the book. For example, a historical background could be split up by time period and relocated to other chapters that fit chronologically.
- Not providing enough background/literature/theory. Assume your reader is intelligent, but may not have the same expertise as you in the material (because you are writing the book). Giving short definitions, brief explanations, and a few sentences of background can be immensely helpful. Unless you are writing a technical manual, you want people in outside areas to enjoy your book. Write and define in such a way that your work can be understood by readers in other countries/cultures and by future generations. References that seem to be obvious now lose their familiarity over time.
- Including material that should be in the preface or acknowledgements. Chapter 1 is for introducing the book. It is not the place for an origin story of your book’s idea, what television shows you enjoyed as a child, or praise for your favorite barista for refilling your coffee. Put backstories and other personal info that make your book more interesting in the preface. Thank everyone in a separate “acknowledgements” page. These elements are important, but don’t belong in the intro. Note: I’m not talking about reflexivity for analysis. Identifying your intersectional positions in your theory/method section is different than reminiscing about Auntie Annie’s rice pudding (so delicious, but not intro material).
- Floating down the river of tangents. Every word and sentence should serve a purpose. As you edit your chapter, look (and fix) concepts that stray from the objective of a paragraph and section.
- Not writing enough or writing too much. Besides failing to adequately address the sections of the book, a short intro doesn’t properly set the foundation for the book. It can be a little shorter than a typical chapter, but not too far off. Conversely, a lengthy intro is not really an intro. Think about splitting part of it off into a new chapter.
- Skipping the intro. Don’t jump right into the main topic without first telling us what it is about and other key factors for really getting the book. Do what you want with fiction, but nonfiction needs the purpose, justification, and other relevant information laid out.
If this list made you panic about your own in-progress book, you can always revise the introduction. In fact, I recommend it. With my own books, I write the intro first and then return to it much later in the process. I typically wind up changing quite a bit, as I have a better grasp of my project after I’ve written a few chapters. None of my published single-authored books have their original beginnings. You can always revise, but only if you’ve written something in the first place.