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I think the word preface refers to books. I have a small document that is in the form of a hierarchical outline. Before my document, I want to put a small paragraph with instructions how to consume the material. What should I title that small paragraph?

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    I hope the instructions include butter and hot sauce, or it's going to be pretty tasteless. Dec 5 '12 at 21:48
  • Consummation Instructions? How to read? The best way to read this document? There are so many possibilities, and all of them are equally valid. Dec 6 '12 at 11:13
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I have used "Summary", "Abstract", and "Overview" to provide the reader with a guide to the document and how it is organized. Generally, the notion of how to follow, understand, or "consume" the material is implicit in the wording of this section.

"Overview" is common in my industry. It is a word that is more explicit than "Introduction", putting the reader into the mindset that this is a summary of what the entire document is about, rather than just the first step into material.

If you want to be explicit on how the document should be read, there is nothing wrong with saying so in the section having this title (overview, summary, abstract).

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You could call it "How to Consume this Material" or a slightly less formal rendition of this. One suggestion would be, "A Note to the Reader".

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How about an introduction:

3. An initial section of a book or article, which introduces the subject material.

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    Also foreword. Depends on how long it is and how much one wants it to stand out against the rest of the document by giving it a special name and formatting. Dec 5 '12 at 20:03
  • but i am not really introducing anything, more like providing instructions how to read the text to follow
    – amphibient
    Dec 5 '12 at 20:03
  • YESSSSS !! @JohnLawler -- please enter foreword as an answer and i will accept it -- PERFECT
    – amphibient
    Dec 5 '12 at 20:04
  • @JohnLawler Forewords are generally written by somebody other than the author who would follow it with a preface. Dec 5 '12 at 20:10
  • I would go with "Introduction" every time, especially for a whitepaper or outline. I do think "Overview" would work if the text truly provides an overview. Regarding the contents of the Introduction: If a document needs instructions on how to be read, perhaps the document needs to be rethought? Or perhaps the author is underestimating his or her readers. Dec 5 '12 at 22:36
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Besides already-mentioned preface, introduction, foreword, summary, abstract, and overview, consider précis, “A concise or abridged statement or view”.

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Synopsis - noun, plural synopses [si-nop-seez] 1. a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject. 2. a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole. 3. a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.

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  • Your answer is apt, but should include the reference you used plus a link to the reference, if it was an online reference.
    – ab2
    Apr 1 '16 at 22:56
  • No use adding a link that can not work in the future.
    – u84six
    Apr 7 '16 at 14:15
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User guide, How to use this document or Instructions for use all seem to fit the OP's context.

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"Preface" is the perfect word for many short documents. For instance in their book "Report Writing for readers with little time", Elling and colleagues suggest that most technical reports should have a preface. That preface should place the work in context and give a guide to reading it.

If it is just a reading guide as you said, "abstract", "synopsis" and "summary" are misleading headings. When I read one of these words I'd expect a summary of the content, not a guide to reading the document. However, if you combine the content summary with the how-to-read guide, these headings are perfectly fine.

"Guide to the document" or another informal heading like those suggested in Sam's answer might do as well. Use your creativity.

Last word: it really depends a lot on the kind of document you are writing and your audience.

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