How introductions improve nonfiction books

Here’s a few pitfalls I’ve noticed in nonfiction books. No need to name names, as these problems are common enough that you may have noticed them in your own reading, too.

One problem is that, in giving advice, authors sometimes say things that are dreadfully obvious. “The goal is to complete the project.” “It’s better to do things well than to do them poorly.” And so on. This can happen with books that document facts, too. Sometimes it seems as if the book is just a list of facts. The facts struggle to elevate to the level of a concept, and they don’t reach the level of story. Even if the facts are obscure, they are “obvious” in the sense that they already exist in an encyclopedia somewhere in much the same format. Whatever unique meaning the author might have lent them in a book-length treatment isn’t fully delivered.

Another is that, in classifying problems, authors sometimes juxtapose problems of wildly different severities and psychological impacts. “Sometimes you have a bad day: you know, you stub your toe, or your child dies.” “Cultivate your personal network so you can get a good job and escape the country if there’s a genocide.” It’s hard to keep track of the author’s originally intended point when the examples muddy the emotional content.

One overarching problem can lead to both of these bad results: The author’s neglect to explain why they wanted to write this book in the first place. Here’s my theory of how that works.

Presumably the author knows a lot and cares about their thesis. They don’t think what they are saying is factually obvious; they want to add something new. They’re also aware that the phenomenon they’re pointing out has many different manifestations with different emotional and moral meanings and applications; as an expert, they’re probably capable of making those distinctions. But if the author doesn’t open the book explaining their qualifications and interests, and if they don’t make the case that this book needs to exist and that they’re the best person to create it, then the book doesn’t get off on the right foot. The writer may not yet have adequately interrogated their knowledge base or their agenda (in which case they really aren’t quite prepared to write the book) or they may simply lack confidence in themselves. Without a proper introduction, the reader, similarly, has no basis on which to have confidence in the author. Furthermore, the reader may not trust the author to handle a psychologically deep topic. The writer has not extended their own voice and made the personal connection with the reader.

That’s why I believe nonfiction introductions are important. When the author establishes their qualifications and passions up front, they are less likely to make the mistake of endlessly listing platitudes and facts and winding up with bizarre and insensitive juxtapositions. They will remember why they are writing the book. When the book is complete, readers will appreciate coming along for the ride.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: