Last updated: November 2019
A rhetorical précis is a type of academic writing where you summarize another piece of text, its main ideas and arguments, in particular, to provide insight into its author’s thesis.
So, it happened again. Your teacher assigned yet another paper to you. It sounds something like “write a précis, in 800-1000 words (approximately four double-spaced pages), of the first two-thirds of ‘Reading: An Intertextual Activity,’ by Robert Scholes. Your precis should cover Scholes’s essay through the top of page 28.”
And we can almost hear you thinking:
What the heck is going on here?
Stand down the panic! This article reveals all the details you need to know for A-worthy precis writing: precis definition, precis format, and precis example for you to understand once and for all what is a precis.
What is a Precis?
Derived from French, the word “précis” means a summary. So, if your professors give you such writing assignments, they want you to summarize some text and convey the summary in minimum words.
Here goes a precis definition:
- A rhetorical précis is a clear, concise, and logical summary of a passage preserving its essential ideas only.
Before writing a précis, make sure you clearly understand its peculiarities and specification.
The first and foremost:
A précis is NOT an essay or re-writing. It shouldn’t tell but summarize an essence of the original document and provide readers with the information about its significance and worth.
In other words:
Even if your audience didn’t read the original abstract, they should have a clear idea about its content and meaning after checking your précis. A précis explains the main point and structure of the original work but doesn’t offer any evaluations or your reactions.
Rhetorical Précis Characteristics and Qualities
When assigned to write a précis, make sure you understand its characteristics:
- A précis is a critical summary of writing abstracts.
- A précis is NOT re-writing or interpretation of the original.
- It is NOT written with words from the original, though you are welcome to use some quotes if appropriate.
- It summarizes the content of the original.
- A précis reveals the meaning of the original and explains its value.
- As a rule, a précis is 1/4 of the original in length, except as noted.
- It follows the standard format: an author’s thesis and methods he uses to represent it, results, and conclusion.
Why do professors assign a précis writing to students?
First, it helps them understand how good you are with critical thinking, summarizing, and highlighting the crucial information. And second, writing a précis is a great way of learning new material.
A rhetorical précis will demonstrate your writing skills to professors, as well as your ability to express your thoughts intelligibly. Make sure your paper highlights the following qualities:
- Clarity, which means a reader should understand what an author intended to convey. Achieve it by using simple language and structure.
- Correctness, which means you should watch spelling, grammar, and punctuation you use, as well as facts, figures, and dates you address.
- Objectivity, which means candid construal of the information. Don’t give your opinion in a précis.
- Coherence, which means the logical interconnection of the ideas from the original. Your audience shouldn’t lose their interest while reading.
- Conciseness, which means avoiding unnecessary details in your précis. Don’t omit essential facts but avoid wordy expressions, repetitions, wateriness, etc.
How to Write a Précis
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” ― Mark Twain
One of the most famous American essayists, Mr. Twain nailed it: short doesn’t equal quick or easy to write. Especially if you write a summary and not just re-write the original. So, the process of précis writing begins with critical reading and research:
- Read the original piece.
- Specify its core points and arguments.
- Consider the evidence used by the author.
- Research what’s new for you in the original piece: definitions, statements, words, data, etc.).
- Identify the appeals the author used.
- Evaluate how the author conveyed meaning.
- Restate the thesis.
- Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each section in the original.
- Describe it by own words.
- Reread the original and compare it with your summary.
Now it’s time to start writing the final draft of your critical précis. Begin with paraphrasing the thesis and your 1-2 sentence statements, then review it to make sure you’ve explained the main point, identified the evidence, and used the logical structure.
Finally, check your précis for clarity, correctness, and coherence.
This précis example will help to understand the sense of such a writing assignment better.
Sandra M. Gilbert, professor of English at the University of California, Davis, in her essay “Plain Jane’s Progress” (1977), suggests that Charlotte Brontë intended Jane Eyre to resemble John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in that Jane’s pilgrimage through a series of events based on the enclosure and escape motif eventually lead toward the equality that Brontë herself sought. Gilbert supports this conclusion by using the structure of the novel to highlight the places Jane has been confined, the changes she undergoes during the process of escape, and the individuals and experiences that lead to her maturation concluding that “this marriage of true minds at Ferndean – this is the way” (501). Her purpose is to help readers see the role of women in Victorian England in order to help them understand the uniqueness and daring of Brontë’s work. She establishes a formal relationship with her audience of literary scholars interested in feminist criticism who are familiar with the work of Brontë, Bunyan, Lord Byron and others and are intrigued by feminist theory as it relates to Victorian literature.
Follow a Precis Format and Structure
This is a single sentence including the following information:
- the author’s name
- the title of the original piece
- the publishing date (in parentheses)
- power verbs determining the author’s thesis (“explains,” “argues,” “proves,” etc.)
- your thesis itself.
Some experts suggest starting your précis with a hook and then restating the author’s thesis. Others say this type of academic writing doesn’t need hooks in the introduction. The best decision would be to ask a professor about the format you may use.
Here’s the example of a rhetorical précis introduction:
Each paragraph explains a separate section of the original piece, providing the author’s evidence, purpose, and ideas. Don’t forget that you can’t interpret arguments from your point of view but should analyze the author’s stands on an issue. Feel free to use quotes here, but be brief and attribute them correctly.
This précis template makes it all clear:
In her article “Who Cares if Johnny Can’t Read?” (1997), Larissa MacFarquhar asserts that Americans are reading more than ever despite claims to the contrary and that it is time to reconsider why we value reading so much, especially certain kinds of “high culture” reading. MacFarquhar supports her claims about American reading habits with facts and statistics that compare past and present reading practices, and she challenges common assumptions by raising questions about reading’s intrinsic value. Her purpose is to dispel certain myths about reading in order to raise new and more important questions about the value of reading and other media in our culture. She seems to have a young, hip, somewhat irreverent audience in mind because her tome is sarcastic, and she suggests that the ides she opposes are old-fashioned positions.
It should restate the main idea. Summarize everything and remember to avoid any personal statements about the original piece.
Additional Precis Templates to Check
More rhetorical precis templates needed to understand the nature of a précis and get a better idea of how to write it right? No problem!
In her essay “Cyberspace and Identity” (1999), Sherry Turkle argues that “today’s life on the screen dramatizes and concretizes a range of cultural trends that encourage us to think of identity in terms of multiplicity and flexibility” (272). Turkle supports her assertion by juxtaposing theories of cyberspace and identity formation with older understandings of identity found in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Her purpose is to show readers that theories on cyberspace and identity, which claim that identity is multiple and cyclical, do not overturn, but rather add to our understandings of identity in order to encourage her audience “to rethink our relationship to the computer culture and psychoanalytic culture as proudly held joint citizenship” (278). Turkle’s tone assumes a highly educated audience who is familiar with theories not only of cyberspace and identity, but sociology and psychology as well.
Charles S. Peirce’s article “The Fixation of Belief” (1877) asserts that humans have psychological and social mechanisms designed to protect and cement (or “fix”) our beliefs. Peirce backs this claim up with descriptions of four methods of fixing belief, pointing out the effectiveness and potential weaknesses of each method. Peirce’s purpose is to point out the ways that people commonly establish their belief systems in order to jolt the awareness of the reader into considering how their own belief system may the product of such methods and to consider what Peirce calls “the method of science” as a progressive alternative to the other three. Given the technical language used in the article, Peirce is writing to a well-educated audience with some knowledge of philosophy and history and a willingness to consider other ways of thinking.