Précis: What It Is and How It Can Be Applied in Academic Writing

There are some times when you write an article that you are asked to produce a precis. If you want to know what it is and how to go about that Herculean task, read on to get the best of information.

How to explain a precis

You could say that a précis is a smaller form of an article or a long piece of writing, be it an essay, thesis or any form of writing imaginable. This form of writing does well to keep all of the writer’s thoughts and ideas in a somewhat compacted form, taking into consideration the mood of the author as well as his tone. The main difference between the original essay and a précis is that in an essay, the writer is at liberty to be superfluous in his expressions, adding all sorts of language to sort of colour in the skeletons of his ideas. This is not so with a précis. A précis contains just about 800 words or less therefore, everything you as an author needs to say has to be wrapped up in the most precise and succinct way possible. Taking out the superfluous and unnecessary expressions and descriptions is the main thing that sets a précis aside from a typical essay.

Why write a Précis?

You might be wondering therefore, that what is the point of writing a précis when you can easily write down an essay? The first reason of course would be ‘that is what your professor wants’. The other reason is, writing a précis is an extraordinarily difficult task, in that you have to read through the entire essay, pick out the most salient points and reproduce them in a manner that captures the entirety of the original writing. It is not a rewriting or a copy. It is a summary of the entire essay in not more than 800 words. Writing one tests your critical thinking, understanding, as well as writing skills.

One good part about writing a précis is that there is absolutely no need for you to put in your ideas and insertions. You simply need to capture the mind of the author in the most concise way possible minus all of your ideas and insertions. Once you get the idea, it should be really easy, but it needs a lot of discipline and focus to capture the perfect précis.

How to write a précis one-oh-one

Now that you get what a précis is, you can go on to learning some of the tips that make writing a précis possible.

You have got to read the material

Reading and understanding what you read is the core of your writing. You first need to pick an original text that is simple and easy to understand, or if it is not so, you might find several commentaries on the same topic. The basic idea is for you to capture the initial writer’s point of view and to be able to strip away all of the added drama to get the core of what your writer is talking about.

  •  Choose credible sources- You might want to be selective about the research you are doing so that you end up with sources that are central to your original text. In order to write a good summary, you will have to pull from all sorts of places, namely, textbooks, internet sources, you name it. Gather all of these credible sources and get the juice out of the writing. A summary always works best when you know and understand thoroughly what you are writing about.
  •  Read the original text several times – You might think this is a standard essay where you can get away with reading the text once and there you have it. You could not be more wrong. Take your time to read the original text several times if you have to. The more you read, the more you realise that there might be a lot of ideas that have been implied between the lines. Reading the text several times allows you to deduce correctly and therefore gives you a more rounded approach in coming up with a summary.
  •  Write notes- Make the habit of taking notes each time you read. The more you take notes the easier it becomes to reduce the number of words you use to explain each point, making it that much easier to summarize.

Organize the writer’s ideas

The writer’s ideas can be reduced to 3 or 4 main chunks of ideas. Especially if you are working with an extremely long piece, you might want to divide each of the broader ideas into separate themes, and group them accordingly. This takes out much confusion and allows you to correctly summarize without leaving any important point out.

When writing, stick to the format given to you

Your professor might have chosen a format for you to present your work. Always have it in mind to adhere to that format whether it is the MLA, Vancouver, Harvard format. Research and learn about the given format and fashion all of your writing around it.

  •  As you write, have the original text before you at all times, so that you can constantly refer to avoid leaving out points.
  •  Take care not to paraphrase your writing, but start by explaining the main points of the writing in your own words rather than lifting and dropping sentences. As you explain the text, keep reducing the number of words used to make the same point, then you are on your way to a summary.
  •  Remember that your writing should only be a quarter of the original text, therefore an original text of 800 words should have a précis of just about 200 words and not more. Be guided by this.

Qualities your précis must possess

  •  Be clear – Clarity shows through when a reader is able to fully understand the text being read. This may require a certain language that is suitable for the reader, not superfluous or overwhelming, just right to convey the necessary points. Choose simple language over complicated jargons, use formal language and add just a bit of vivid examples to fully convey a point. Stay away from the over use of colourful language that may force you the writer to digress.
  •  Be correct – When presenting any piece of the English language in writing, it is important tours correct grammar, punctuation marks and spelling. It therefore behooves on the writer to check and double check, read, re-read and proofread their work to take out any mistakes that may have been made during the course of writing.
  •  Be coherent- Follow a step-by-step pattern as you write so that you do not lose your audience. Each idea must flow into the next and not seem like blocks of different ideas swimming in your text. Take care to make sure that your writing is coherent.
  •  Be objective- In as much as you are explaining points, your take on the matter should not show through your piece of writing. Approach the writing from a logical and objective point of view, rather explaining the writer’s point in the most impartial way possible. Refrain from using argumentative language or any language that may imply a dismissal of any of the writer’s main points.
  •  Be concise- As much as possible, stay away from, the use of flamboyant language. About repetitions and unnecessary expressions. As much as possible, try to explain in a few words possible, putting forth only the main ideas and not adding so unnecessary details to the piece of writing.

Structure and format of a précis

The structure of a précis is not much different from that of an essay although it cannot and should not be considered as the latter. The structure of a précis contains just about the same blocks as an essay namely an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

Introduction – Your introduction does not need to be wordy. Depending on the proposed length of the précis, some may opt for an introduction in the form of a single sentence or a couple of sentences. What your introduction should contain are:

  1.  The author’s name
  2.  The title of your piece of writing
  3.  The date it was published – this should be put in parentheses
  4.  Use verbs that determine the authors form of writing like ‘explains’, ‘proves’ ‘argues’

You might want to begin with a catchy hook and then enter with the rest of your introduction. Some scholars argue however, that this is unnecessary. You can ask your professor about whether a hook is necessary or not. Take care to write all these in an essay for rather than in block form.

An example of an introduction could be:

“ In his infamous essay ‘Beowulf : Monsters and the Critics’, written in 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien is seen to criticize modern scholars for studying Beowulf just to prove the existence of the Anglo-Saxon period as opposed to appreciating it for the literary work of art that it is.”

  • Body

The body should be divided into paragraphs, each glowing from the previous, yet each explaining a particular point of the writing. This is where the division of the writing into sections comes into play. Take care not to interpret arguments in your writing. Simply analyse the writer’s main ideas and his stand on the issues presented. You can use a few quotes here and there if it helps in the explanation, but be careful to keep to the word limit of your writing. Remember that your précis should only be a quarter of the original piece so choose your words carefully. Opt for words which can directly explain terms rather than having a truckload of words to explain these same terms.

  •  Conclusion

This should wrap up all that you have said and rehash the pivotal idea in your writing. Keep your summary concise and short and refrain from adding any of your biases into the writing. Keep an objective stance when presenting the paper and do not use words that betray any sense of allegiance or bias towards or against the writer’s main idea.

Writing a précis is no child’s play. A lot of reading and analyzing can go into producing one piece of work. Take care to research properly each of the ideas mentioned by the author. If there is any reference you may be unfamiliar with, take the extra time to research and gain a proper understanding before proceeding to summarize.

It is always best to gain the writer’s point of view and use it as your stepping point to write your summary. Break up long pieces into blocks so that it helps summarize the writing. Most importantly, seek advise from your professor once you are given this task and read over your text as many times as necessary to avoid any mistakes that you might make while you write. Keep the original text always handy so that you can easily refer as it is easy to forget what your initial point was when you started writing. Use simple and succinct language to bring out your explanation and stick to a few words rather than long sentences. With these tips, and a few examples, you will surely be the doyen of writing précis in no time and you will definitely score an A in the paper. How’s that for cracking down a Herculean task?

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