First Impressions Matter: How to Write the Introduction for Your Nonfiction Book

When a reader picks up your nonfiction book, they will have questions like:

  • Will this book help me solve my problem?
  • Will it teach me something new? Or inspire me to make a much-needed change in my life?
  • How will it help me?
  • Is it even possible to change?
  • Does this author know what the heck they’re talking about?
  • Can I trust them?
  • Will this book keep my interest or bore me to tears?

This is a heavy load for the first few pages of any book, but answering all of these questions can be done. If you’re writing a prescriptive or transformational nonfiction book, a book that is geared to help someone solve a problem, you’ll want to make sure you answer each of them in your book’s introduction.

The purpose of your introduction is to build trust and connection with your reader. It assures them that you understand them, you see them, and you can help them, educate them, or inspire them. If you do these things well, it’s likely that your reader will move on to reading your book in its entirety.

Knowing Your Audience

I started this article with a list of questions that your reader might be asking when they pick up your book. This was intentional because your book is first and foremost for your reader. Before you start writing, you must do the work to identify your ideal reader and what they’re looking for in your book.

If you haven’t done that work yet, you’re not ready to write your introduction because you won’t know who you’re talking to. Once you’ve got that drilled down and you’ve done the foundational work, then you can write an effective intro.

What to Put in Your Introduction

This may seem somewhat formulaic, but after closely analyzing stacks of wonderful nonfiction books from my personal library, these are elements that all good nonfiction introductions include.

In your book’s introduction, you’ll want to include:

  1. A hook
  2. Your audience
  3. Your audience’s struggles/problem
  4. Your solution to their problem
  5. Your book’s promise/emotional payoff
  6. Your credentials
  7. A brief outline of what’s included in your book (optional)

You don’t need to write these elements in this exact order, except for the hook which always comes first. Some authors will also cover these elements several times. For example, your hook might also identify your audience and their pain points. Others go step by step in a short succinct intro.

1) A Hook

A “hook” refers to the opening lines or paragraphs that are designed to capture the reader’s attention and draw them into the book’s content. It’s essentially a literary device used to make the reader interested and curious about the subject matter, encouraging them to continue reading.

You want to start your introduction with an anecdote or information that grabs your reader’s attention. It must pique their curiosity and speak to them in some way. Your hook will begin to build their trust in you so that they know they’re not alone with whatever issue they’re dealing with.

Your hook is the first piece of your book your readers will read, so take your time with this. If you use a story, choose one that will resonate with your readers.

Examples of great hooks:

  • Atomic Habits by James Clear begins with, “On the final day of my sophomore year of high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. As my classmate took a full swing the bat slipped out of his hands and came flying toward me before striking me directly between the eyes. I have no memory of the moment of impact.”
    • These two lines tell a powerful story and absolutely pique the reader’s curiosity. We know that he survived because we’re reading his book but how did he do it? We want to know how this story ties into the idea of creating habits.
  • The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor begins with a paradox. He begins by introducing us to a formula with which we’re all familiar, “If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life…The only problem is that this formula is broken.”
    • This formula is one we’ve all experienced. We get it. So, saying that it’s broken makes us wonder why? And how? We want to know more. If becoming successful won’t make us happy, what will?
  • Breath by James Nestor also begins with a story, but his starts as more of a horror story. He writes, “The place looked like something out of Amityville all paint-chipped walls, dusty windows, and menacing shadows cast by moonlight. I walked through a gate, up a flight of creaking steps, and knocked on the door.”
    • The story goes on for several pages as we join Nestor at his first breathing class where he ends up soaked in sweat and relaxed for the first time in a long time. This experience launches him on a years-long quest to figure out what had happened to him in that class. And we as readers want to know what happened too. It’s a great hook.

2) Identify who your book is for (your audience)

Your book is not for everybody. It might appeal to a larger group than your identified audience, but you want to identify your specific audience in your introduction, so they feel that they are in good hands. You want your audience to know that you see them and that this book is for them.

Examples of Audience Identification:

  • Ann Handley does this beautifully in her book Everybody Writes. She identifies her audience in her hook which is a story about her belief that she cannot do a pushup, ever. But then she learns how. She relates this story to her audience which is people who want to create content but don’t believe they can write. She assures them that they can learn, just like she learned how to do a pushup, and she will teach them how.
  • Breath is for those who want to improve both their physical and mental health through breathing.
  • Your Brain’s Not Broken is for those with ADHD who no longer want to struggle to fit into a non-ADHD world. They’re exhausted and frustrated and want to learn how their ADHD brain works so they can “understand, accept, and compensate” for their differences.

3) Identify Your Audience’s main problem or struggle

We pick up nonfiction to get help and support with solving problems. I have stacks and stacks of writing books because I’m a writer, a writing teacher, and a book coach. There’s always something to learn. I also have stacks of books on business building, healing from migraine and chronic pain, teaching, and most recently, menopause. Oh, the joy of night sweats.

I purchased all of these books because they spoke to me as a writer, business owner, migraine sufferer, teacher, and midlife perimenopausal woman. These are very different audiences with varying issues, but I have purchased books that address my specific problems within each area which is why identifying your audience in your introduction is crucial.

You want to assure your audience that you understand what they’re struggling with. You can weave your audience’s struggles into the audience identification piece, the hook, or both, or it can stand alone.

Remember that this is the introduction. You will dive more deeply into your reader’s struggles in later chapters, so reference them in the intro but don’t focus on them.

Examples of problem/struggle identification:

  • Penny Kittle’s audience in her book Write Beside Them is high school English teachers but not just any teacher. She’s writing for teachers who’s students “are not writing well, not writing enough. I see my colleagues scrambling to get students to write and revise, and frankly, to care. But despair creeps upon teachers like water advances on the sand” (3).
    • She recognizes what her audience wants (students who write more and well) but who feel desperate as to how to make that happen. As a high school writing teacher, I feel so seen when I read this. Kittle has been a teacher for decades, and she gets the frustration of feeling helpless and ineffective in the classroom. And, she has a solution.
  • Jenny Nash does this well in just a few short lines toward the end of her hook in Blueprint for a Memoir when she writes, “In writing his memoir for publication, Sam had to transform his story from a random collection of things that happened, to a tale that speaks to a specific audience about something in the wider culture. It’s what every memoir writer must do. In my work as a book coach and as the CEO of a book coach certification company, I see writers stall out on this journey all the time.”
    • In this brief excerpt, Nash identifies her audience, memoirists who want to publish, as well as their big problem which is transform random events into something with meaning. She also manages to slide some more credibility in there and reiterates how common this struggle is for her audience. That’s a lot of heavy lifting in two sentences.

4) Your solution to your audience’s problem/struggles

You don’t need to include page-long chapter summaries, but you do want to introduce the concepts or takeaways your reader will get out of your book.

This might be a brief chapter or section summary or a high-level overview of the framework or information that you’ll be teaching.

Examples of what your audience will learn:

  • Penny Kittle’s solution takes the bulk of her introduction in her book, Write Beside Them. She advocates for student voice and choice. We need to be “tapping into their [students] passions.” Teachers also need to trust themselves and do what they know works. She writes, “I won’t be told how to teach writing by people who never write.” Her solution is to trust herself and her students as writers and “wrestle with writing together in a high school writing workshop.” Her book is full of examples and stories of what that wrestling process looks like for her and what it can look like for her audience.
  • In Your Brain’s Not Broken, Dr. Rosier states her solution so clearly when she writes, “This knowledge that ADHD is a complicated disorder that affects each part of a person’s life is the first step to managing it. It is my desire for you to learn to see you ADHD patterns and then make the adaptations necessary for you to live effectively” (16). She follows this with an outline of what the reader will learn in each chapter.

5) The Promise, the Emotional Payoff

The promise of your book is a statement of the point, or what readers will get out of reading your book. What’s the end result? Why are readers reading it overall? You want to state clearly what readers will understand, know, or be able to do by the time they finish reading your book.

Sometimes, this is combined with the solution piece as in the example above from Your Brain’s Not Broken, but sometimes they’re separate as in the following examples.

Examples of the Promise or Emotional Payoff:

  • If you finish Atomic Habits, you’ll know how to establish solid habits. The book “is about the fundamentals of human behavior. The lasting principles you can rely on year after year. The ideas you can build a business around, build a family around, build a life around. There is no one right way to create better habits, but this book describes the best way I know” (10).
  • If you read Breath, you’ll know how “the air that enters your lungs affects every moment of your life and how to harness it to its full potential until your final breath” (xxii).
  • If you finish reading The Happiness Advantage, you’ll know “not only why the Happiness Advantage is so powerful, but how you can use it on a daily basis to increase your success at work” (4).

6) Include Your Credentials to establish credibility

Why should your reader listen to you? Because YOU, my friend, are the expert.

Your book is for your reader, and because of that, you want to ensure them that they are in good hands, your hands. You want them to know that you know what the heck you’re talking about, that you have the experience and/or the education to support them on their journey.

You don’t need to include your resume here to establish your credibility. You can do it in a few ways. The most common way is to include it in your hook. The story you share should reference your experience or expertise in dealing with this topic area.

You can also include a section on your why ie. “Why I wrote this book.” James Clear does this in addition to his hook that establishes his credibility.(see example below).

Examples of the author’s credibility:

  • The first line Blueprint for a Memoir by Jennie Nash is, “When I was teaching a memoir course at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, a 30-something man came and sat down in my classroom.” This man goes on to write a powerful memoir that was published by Scribner and that changed the course of his entire career.
    • We know from the first words that Nash knows what she’s talking about She’s teaching at UCLA, a top-tier university, and her students have phenomenal success. She’s embedded her credentials in her hook.
  • James Clear also conveys his expertise through his hook about his brain injury in Atomic Habits.
    • He had to figure out strategies for himself in order to get through college. Later in his introduction, he shares the story of starting his blog on his experiments about habits where he gained hundreds of thousands of blog subscribers. This social proof also establishes his credibility.
  • Your Brain’s Not Broken by Tamara Rosier, PhD begins with an example that speaks to her audience of those with ADHD. She writes, “Put me at any large party, networking event, or fundraiser, and I will naturally gravitate toward the individuals in the room with ADHD. This isn’t intentional. It just happens. It’s not because I founded the ADHD Center of West Michigan, nor because I have worked in this field for over twelve years…It’s because I instinctively know my tribe. You see, I also have ADHD. But you most likely wouldn’t see it–at first.”
    • In these first lines, Dr. Rosier seamlessly inserts her credentials as an expert and as someone who also has the same struggles as her readers. She thoroughly understands them. Her story goes on as she explains what she does to fit in which also helps her to identify her audience’s problem.
  • Shawn Achor, a research psychologist at Harvard, writes the whole introduction of his book The Happiness Advantage with the voice of a scientist. He uses the word “formula” in his first sentence and two more times on the first page. He also discusses “discoveries” and “more than a decade of groundbreaking research in the field of positive psychology and neuroscience.”

7) Preview what’s coming

This one is optional but as a reader I like to know what’s coming, and many introductions include this information. This might also be combined with the solution section.

Examples of a brief outline:

  • James Nestor does this beautifully in Breath. Toward the end of the introduction, he claims that “it will take the average reader about 10,000 breaths to read from here to the end of the book…by your thousandth breath you’ll understand why modern humans are the only species with chronically crooked teeth…by your 3000th breath, you’ll know the basics of restorative breathing.” He goes to the 10,000th breath at which point he shares the payoff of reading his whole book.

How Long Should Your Introduction Be?

The length of your introduction doesn’t matter so much, as long as you include the key elements.

Out of the introductions I previewed for this post, the shortest was Shawn Achor’s in The Happiness Advantage which clocked in at around 470 words or just over one page. The longest was James Clear’s Atomic Habits that was ten full pages (I didn’t count the words)!

Your Writing Style

If you are writing for a general audience, pay attention to your tone, voice, and style. Yes, I know I sound like the English teacher that I am here, but it’s important.

Each of these are difficult to define, but you know it when they’re missing. Pick up any encyclopedia, and you’ll read entries that are devoid of tone, voice, and style. They’re boring.

Don’t be boring.

You want to write your introduction in such a way that it connects with readers; write as if you’re talking to a friend, in your own voice. Don’t try to make it sound a certain way – you will only confuse your readers.

Also be sure to include stories or vignettes to connect with and entertain your reader. Generally this is in your hook, but they might appear in other sections as well.

Be sure to avoid using jargon that readers might not understand though if your ideal reader would know specific terms, by all means, use them. You certainly don’t want to dumb your writing down, but you also don’t want to sound pretentious and like your book will be “too hard” to understand.

Again, this comes down to knowing your ideal reader and who you’re writing for.

Read Intro’s Like a Writer

If you’re still unsure how all of these fit together, read some introductions like a writer.

If you’re wondering what that means, to read like a writer, it means that you have an entire university of writing instruction sitting right on your bookshelves . . . if you’ll just take the time to pay attention to those stacks of books.

Reading as a writer differs from reading as a reader in that you pay attention not just to the book’s point and lessons but also to the craft behind how the book is structured. To do it, I choose an element to look at and read, noticing how the element I’m looking at is crafted. Then, I take notes as I re-read the book or part of the book.

This is exactly the process I used to write this article. It’s an analytical tool.

For samples of good introductions, grab a few of your favorite nonfiction books off the shelf and read the introductions. See if you can identify the above seven elements in them. I’m willing to bet that you can.

Note which intros you like or that pull you in. See if you can identify what it is about that intro that works and how you might apply those strategies to your own introduction.

Conclusion

In the introduction to her book, Everybody Writes, Ann Handley tells us that “quality content means content that is packed with clear utility and is brimming with inspiration, and it has relentless empathy for the audience” (6). This is exactly what a good introduction must include. It needs to convey that your book is useful. It must inspire readers to keep going. And, it must recognize and empathize with the audience.

If you do those things well, readers will accept your invitation that you crafted specifically for them in the introduction and read your book.

I’d love for you to share in the comments any of your favorite introductions to nonfiction books.

2 Comments

  1. Meredith on September 30, 2023 at 9:28 am

    Thanks for this too. Amy, I love the way you write with examples!!!

    In memoire, should all of these elements be included in the “prologue”?

    • Amy Isaman on October 29, 2023 at 3:36 pm

      Hi! I JUST saw this – a month later. Sorry! Memoir is a different beast. Because it’s written as a story, you for sure want to hook your reader – that’s a non-negotiable. But, the rest are really geared toward self-help or transformational non-fiction where the reader is looking to solve some sort of problem. Generally, people pick up memoir with the idea of being inspired or entertained and that happens through the telling of the story rather than through learning a process as in self-help. So the narrative is the most important piece of memoir. If that’s done well, it will hook the reader and possibly inspire or educate them, but that’s not the primary goal.

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