Writing a Précis: The Know How

A précis is that academic summary of a possibly long piece of writing which you might have to take out several of the embellishing done in the original piece. Much like serving a sandwich without the filling but it is still a sandwich. Read on to find out what it takes to ace this thing!

What is a précis?

A précis, which can be further qualified into a critical précis is a piece of writing which is usually the summary of the original text. It is given as assignments to many students to check their depth of understanding of the original text. Contrary to several beliefs, writing this piece is not as easy as most people might be tempted to think. Unfortunately, because of the resulting size of the piece of writing, which is supposed to be just a quarter of the original piece, most students tend to overlook the technicality involved in writing one, thereby producing a shorter essay, yet omitting several of the salient points from the original text.

The précis is not just a bland summary, but you as the writer have to completely convey the entire mood of the piece of writing, exactly how it’s written. This is done taking into consideration the tone, as well as the direction of the original text. You have to do all this in your own words but not with your own interpretation of the story and your biases. In other words it is like a reported speech in the same vein but without plenty of the words the author used. Unfortunately, the student has to make the précis as believable as the original piece without a lot of the writer’s colorful language and embellishment. It can be difficult to produce such a writing without the leeway to include much literary expression, and that exactly is what writing a précis feels like.

The reader of the précis, although has probably not read the original text, must definitely have as much information as he would have had had he read the original. The difficulty of doing that is compressing the entire passion of the writer from start to finish in a quarter of the full text length. It can be a daunting task indeed.

Features of a good précis

A good précis must have several features that enable the piece of writing to be referred to as such.

  •  It must carry the soul of the original piece- Reading the précis of an original piece must be as enjoyable as reading the original piece, if you may. The writer of the précis must do well to capture all of the original author’s main arguments and mood. Every part of your writing has to mirror the authors as if he were giving a crash course, or a master class, if you will on his original piece.
  •  It must not be long – It has already been said that the précis should only be as long as a quarter of the length of the original piece. Having a piece as long as the original can never be referred to as a précis.
  •  It has to be substantial- In capturing the heart and soul of the original writer, you have to be careful to produce a shorter piece that is as substantial as the original. That means that, if there were any reference points in the original you might have to search them out to rehash them in the way that the writer would have if he had a shorter word limit.
  •  It has to be clear and easy to understand- One of the reasons why people ask for a précis is to take out all of the unfamiliar and difficult to read parts of he writing. When you read an original text, especially the older literary works, you realise that much of the writing is indeed archaic and repetitive. Some of it cannot be understood at one glance. The précis is meant to be written in clear language that can be understood by all who pick it up to read.
  •  The précis does not carry additional information- The piece of writing must never mirror your own thoughts and understanding of the events taking place in the original literary work. The précis should be shorter compressed or paraphrased forms of the main ideas of the original minus any of its writer’s ideas, biases, commentaries and revelations.
  •  It is not several statements of facts- Unfortunately, for a writer getting a précis written completely in the same mood as the original, falling back into simply stating and lining up the facts of the writing is very tempting. This however is also not how a précis should be written. The précis should contain the ideas of the writer paraphrased and re-worded as much as possible, but should still be as if the original writer wrote it. See? Not that difficult.

How a précis should be written: before you write

  1.  Take ample time to read and re-read the original paper- There is no way you would be able to get the full idea of the authors point of view by reading the original paper once. It is imperative that you read the original several times, making several notes along the way of how you could even compress some of the ideas into smaller words. The more you re-read the original, the more the understanding comes alive to you and then you can recreate the entire mood of the writer using your own words and less expressions. Because length is so important in writing a précis, as you read, make notes about each of the major ideas of the original piece. Divide each of these ideas into blocks, if you will, then find as few words as possible to say the same thing. Most of the time the more you re-read the text and understand it, the easier it becomes to find new ways to rehash the ideas of the original writer. You however have to be careful not to include any of your opinions in the piece of writing because at the end of the day, you would be writing an analytical or critical paper and not a précis.
  2.  Research the material – There will definitely be lots of references in the original piece of writing. Lots of references and expressions which may have been relevant during the time the précis was being written. Take care to find out all of these references and read them. Do proper research work on the original namely, when it was written, why it was written and to whom it was written. These questions, together with the many references you have can help you to further understand the ideas and concepts of the original writer. This then makes it easier to reproduce their mood and their soul into the piece of writing.
  3.  Come up with an outline- This outline will not only guide the structure of your essay but will also guide your ideas and how they flow into one another. As mentioned before, a précis is not a couple of sentences each saying a different idea as outlined by the original. The précis should have paragraphs, shorter ones, but paragraphs all the same. You form this outline by dividing your main text into several blocks as you did while you were reading. Once your blocks are made, try to get the main idea in each section of the original piece. Take note of how the ideas flow into each other and try to replicate that with fewer words. Your outline should include all the main ideas of the original piece and how you intend to convey them unto your paper, some of the language you intend to borrow, and your explanations of each of these critical points bearing in mind the need to keep your opinions out of the paper. After you have done all this, determine how the actual structure of your writing would be and prepare to stick by it as you begin writing.
  4.  Keep the original piece always in front of you- It is very easy to get carried away when you are writing such a piece and you have made enough notes. The temptation would be that you might then rely too much on your notes and then forget the entire mood of the original author of the piece. It is important that before you start working on any new segment you refer to the original. Referring to the original also ensures that no vital information was missed. You can never re-read the original text enough. Try your maximum best ti have the original as close o you as possible so that Incase you missed out on one main idea of the writing during your planning, would not realize it only in hindsight. Another reason why the original should be by your side as you write is that you would need it to length check. Constantly comparing your sentences, paragraphs and segments to that of the original will make it easier to achieve the correct length of your précis, which is a quarter of the main text, and still give enough space t each of the relevant points of the writing.

How a précis should be written: As you write

There are several points that must not be missed as you finally write your precis. There are some things that have to be kept in consideration in order for the final work of your précis to be top notch.

  1.  Your writing should be clear – Stay away from using colloquial language or language that is difficult to understand when writing the précis. Take care to keep your language clear and relevant to the times. Your précis should be able to be read by people who would pass up the original, therefore a lot of the intricate detailing, repetitions, embellishments and flamboyance can be done away with.
  2.  Your writing should be concise- As brief as possible yet conveying the full message of the original text. Be careful not to include information from outside of the original. Also do not import your own ideas into the piece of writing. Simply convey the original message as a summary in fewer words yet capturing the same mood of the writer.
  3.  Your writing should be coherent – Each separate idea has to flow into the next in logical order. It does no one any service if your writing turns out like a couple of different ideas all mashed onto one page. Take care to plan your work beforehand to avoid messing the order of your précis up.
  4.  Your writing has to correct- The correctness of the précis is not only in grammatical sense but also logically and with regards to information. Make good use of the reference points and take care to write such that you do not end up deviating from the main idea of the original. Every fact you place in the précis has to be correct and not doctored in anyway.
  5.  You have to be objective – your writing has to come from a third person unbiased point of view. You have to write as objectively as possible, using evidence that is credible, and remove all elements of possible bias in the writing. Use language that remains objective all through the writing, which does not betray any sense of bias.

The outline of the précis

The outline that your précis must follow is as follows

  •  Introduction
Your introduction should have the following features:
  1.  The name of the original author
  2.  The title of the original piece
  3.  The genre and the date of publication in parentheses
  4.  The stance of the writer : use words such as ‘claims, argues, etc’
  5.  The target audience (if there is one)
  6.  You could also shed a little light into the era the writing was made to help readers better understand the stance of the writer.

A good example of an introduction would be:

‘ In his paper, ‘The Idea of Capitalism,’ dated 1897, Marx, the famous writer critically examines……’

  •  Body

The body of your writing should contain the main points of the writing in small paragraphs, each flowing into the other. You can insert a bit of the writer’s nuances in there. Be careful to completely convey the mood of the writer and write in third person.

  •  The conclusion

This is a summary of all you have written. You may rehash some of the points stated in the body and cap it off beautifully with a perfect summary.

Writing a précis can truly be a headache for most students. Hopeful these tips will guide you into producing that A+ essay without much stress. You can search some précis examples online and have a feel of what your writing should look like at the end of the day.

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