Why your book needs a Preface, and what it should include

So you finished your book, congratulations! Just as you’re ready to submit your manuscript, you glance over a checklist we sent you way back when you signed your contract, and notice that you haven’t written a preface. Do you really need one? Yes! If your book is a textbook or academic book, experience tells us that a strong preface can help win adoptions for your book.

Studying at a cafe
Your book’s preface is a great marketing tool, and the first thing that an instructor will likely read: take some time to plan out what to include.

Here’s some SAGE advice (forgive the pun!) for writing a great preface, and what to include:

  1.  A clear statement of your mission or purpose in writing the book

Why did your spend all those countless hours writing this book? Why is there a need for it? Why should anyone read it? This may seem an obvious place to start, but authors often overlook a strong mission statement, having been so closely involved with the project. Think about what compelled you to write the book; perhaps problems that you faced in teaching your course, and not finding an adequate text for the way you wanted to approach the topic? Your mission statement should be specific and powerful to encourage instructors to adopt your book, students to read it, and professionals to use it. Our sales representatives often say that the appeal of a book is in the “story” of the book—that powerful reason that drove you to write it. 

  1. A description of the specific market (courses) for your book

List the departments where there are courses that could use your book. What are some typical course names? Please be specific to help potential adopters identify if your book could meet their needs.

3. The major features of the book and the benefits of these features

In describing the features, make certain that each feature is clearly and simply described, along with its benefits. For example, if your book emphasizes international examples and data, you should discuss why this approach benefits the reader. If your book is an upper-level book, there are still unique characteristics that readers need to know about. Is your research, the methodology, or the theory unique? Does it fill a gap in the literature? Does it have policy implications? Let your reader know why your book is special.

4.  A discussion of special pedagogical aids and high-interest features

What kind of pedagogy did you build into the book to help students master the content? This could be the chapter-opening and chapter-ending material, or specific boxed features. Briefly describe each feature and its intended benefits.

  1. Changes to a revised edition

If you are preparing a preface for a revision, be certain to include the changes to this edition. A heading such as “New to this Edition” can call attention to this important section, and this is incredibly helpful for an instructor who may have used the previous edition. If the changes are substantial, it is a good idea to list this chapter by chapter.

  1. Digital resources to accompanying the text (if applicable)

Describe these in as much detail as possible, separating instructor supplements from those for the student. We will insert the URL for the accompanying website here too.

  1. Acknowledgments

A good preface always ends with acknowledgments and the content here is largely your choice. The list of reviewers is the one required item; we will supply you with this list.

Congrats, now you really are ready to submit your manuscript!

Why Learning Objectives are a road map, as well as a pedagogical device

Textbook writing is both an art and a science. Creating a structure to your chapters helps the reader know where you’re going, and what they should expect to learn.

Winding Road on a Colorful Background with Pin Pointers
Give your readers some signposts for where they’re going, and what they should expect to learn along the way

Learning Objectives (LOs) are a great pedagogical device, but they also provide a map to help you structure your chapter. LOs at the start of each chapter are statements of specific and measurable goals that identify knowledge or skills a student should have mastered upon completing the chapter. If your book is likely to have instructor resources supporting it, then test questions will be tagged to the LOs, to provide insight into what material the student has or has not yet mastered.

Best Practices with Learning Objectives

  1. Align each learning objective with an A-level subheading

Connect LOs to the core content in your chapter by pairing one LO with each major subheading in the chapter. Since A-level subheads divide the chapter into its main topics, matching LOs with these helps ensure you have covered all the essential content.

  1. Create 5-8 learning objectives per chapter

Most chapters will include an average of 5 A-level subheadings. For most texts, 5-8 LOs per chapter will be about the right number. More than 8 LOs will overwhelm students, and may indicate that you are trying to include too much material in one chapter.

  1. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to craft learning objectives

Bloom’s Taxonomy helps classify LOs based upon the ways students learn, advancing from basic knowledge recall toward evaluative critical thinking through five cognitive categories: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. As your book progresses, your LOs will naturally move towards the more complex learning outcomes. Try and use a variety of interesting, measurable verbs in crafting your objectives:

  1. Write LOs in a clear and consistent format

Use simple, direct statements that contain a verb and an object to create clear, measurable objectives. Your objectives should include:

  • A measurable or observable verb
  • The object of the verb
  • The condition, if any, under which the measurement is to occur
  • The criterion or measure of success, if any

Here’s an example with a verb, object, and condition:

Describe the various steps in carrying out a literature review

  1. Compose SMART learning objectives

The handy SMART acronym captures the key LO characteristics to keep in mind. They should be:

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Achievable

R = Relevant

T = Targeted

Tie LOs to your end-of-chapter material

Once you’ve created your LOs for each of your major headings in the chapter, your chapter-ending material should also refer back to each of the objectives, to help the student assess whether they have mastered the content. Write an end-of-chapter “Test Yourself” question for each of your LOs.

Voilà! You now have a well-structured chapter which guides the reader through your content, and helps them check their mastery. Now on to the next chapter…

Finding your voice, and organizing your book

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The Last Bookstore, downtown Los Angeles

First-time textbook authors sometimes struggle with a number of challenges they’d never thought about when they decided to write a textbook. Here’s some advice on the issues I most often see in draft manuscripts:

  • Find your author voice: Most of your writing thus far has been for publication in scholarly journals, the audience for which is your peers. Your writing has been scholarly, and every statement has been meticulously (and abundantly) referenced. Now your readers are an entirely new audience (students), and your purpose is different (pedagogical), so your writing style needs to adapt accordingly. You’ll want to develop a rather different author “voice”, as you translate your great teaching style in the classroom into a narrative within the book that will engage your student reader.
  • Create a consistent chapter organization: No-one likes to read a book and wonder where the author is going–we get lost! Create a structure and some signposts for your reader, so that they know where you’re going.
    • Learning Objectives: These opening statements of what the reader should expect to understand by the time they have finished reading the chapter, can be a useful pedagogical feature (even for graduate-level texts).
    • Headings structure: The headings within your chapters should  mirror the objectives you have set out at the beginning of each chapter (remember, signposting!).
    • End-of-chapter material: This should provide the reader with a means for testing whether they have mastered the objectives you set out at the start. This material can take the form of simple “test your knowledge” questions, or more in-depth questions for reflection, as well as activities to put some of this new-found knowledge into practice (and activities which can be done as a group in class are great too).
  • Break up long paragraphs of text: Textbooks don’t have to be text-heavy, and many students are visual learners. Consider which parts of your narrative can be better conveyed as a table, or a figure, or simply as a bulleted list: these devices can draw the reader’s eye to the key points you’re making.

I’ll write more about these topics, and in more depth in future posts: if there’s anything specific you’d like me to address, let me know!

I had lots of opportunities to explore “voice” last weekend. I was in downtown Los Angeles to see The Brian Jonestown Massacre at the Teragram Ballroom (which at 3 hours long was wonderful, if a little challenging in the heels I’d mistakenly worn!). While in DTLA, my son Ben and I checked out The Last Bookstore on S. Spring Street to indulge in some print and vinyl treats. What a treasure trove, and in such an amazing old downtown-L.A. building–highly recommended!