Tips for Writing a Précis

                            by Constance DeVereaux

                            A well-written précis should be a serviceable substitute for the original work. The goal is to
                            preserve the core essence of the work in a manner that is both clear and concise. At a
                            minimum, the précis should include the topic or main thesis, the purpose of the research,
                            what was studied, what methods were used, what results (or insight) were gained, and a
                            conclusion. This guide provides tips and includes links to two sample papers, one on fetal
                            protection policies and the other on James L. Sundquist and constitutional reform.

                                                              Goals of the Précis

                                   Compress and clarify a lengthy passage, article, or book, while retaining important
                                   concepts, key words, and important data.

                                   Remove what is superfluous and retain the core essence of the work.

                                   Give a brief description of key terms

                                   Give a brief description of methods ­ an idea of the general approach used by the

                                   State the purpose of the research or piece of writing (why was it important to
                                   conduct this research or write on this topic?)

                                                 When finished, the précis should clearly state:

                                   This is what was studied (argued, discussed).

                                   This is how it was done (this was the focus).

                                   This is what was learned.

                                   This is what it means (why it is important).

                                                                Sample Précis

                                   "Fetal Protection Policies and the Cultural Mandate for Job Segregation by Gender"

                                   "James L. Sundquist, Constitutional Reform and Effective Government"

Claremont Graduate School

                              Writing the Precis

As serious academic writers, you will have to read and remember large amounts of prose (and poetry) along with
scientific and social-studies articles as well. In many of your college courses, you are probably able to memorize facts
and key statements with relative ease, but in English courses and others which also require close, critical reading, you
are asked to go a step further, i.e., to present the informing argument of, let's say, an article and to reproduce the
logical development of the argument in as cogent a form as possible in your own words. In order to demonstrate that
you have assimilated the central argument and proof of another scholar's critical interpretation, you must be able to
summarize and even compose a precis of an argument.

A summary or a precis is NOT a personal interpretation of a work or an expression of your
opinion of the idea; it is, rather, an exact replica in miniature of the work, often reduced to
one-quarter to one-fifth of its size, in which you express the complete argument!

What actually happens when you write a precis? First, you must understand the complete work so that you can
abstract the central argument and express it cogently and completely. Next, you must develop the argument exactly
as the writer has presented it AND reduce the work by 75-80% of its size. Of course, this is possible when you
consider exactly how you "learn" to read the work.

The key word here is assimilation. When you read the material, it is probable that you will understand only those
parts which have associations within your own experience (intellectual, emotional, physical, etc.)

How you actually go about writing a precis depends largely on your ability to restate the writer's central ideas after
you have assimilated them in your own mind.

Here are the rules of the game:

1. Read the article many times most carefully.

2. Write a precis of the article in which you state the entire argument
and present the logical progression (the development) of the argument.

3. Reduce the article to one-fifth to one-quarter of its original length
and omit nothing from the essential argument. This is, in reality,
the key to the whole enterprise!

4. Type the precis and begin with your abstraction of the central, inform-
ing idea of the article. Having understood and written the central idea,
present the essential argument in as cogent manner as possible.

(Clue: Once you have assimilated the article through the illustrations
and examples the writer uses to make his/her abstract ideas concrete,
you do not have to include these in your precis!)

5. Here is a central rule:

Do not copy a single sentence from the article! You may use
key words and phrases only when you are expressing ideas which are
technically precise or when you feel comfortable using the writer's
own words, i.e., you understand exactly he or she means, and there
is really no better way to express the concept.


Finally, in order to complete this assignment, you will have to read the work most carefully, ask questions about the
work repeatedly, and reach into your own experiences so that you can shape most cogently the writer's concepts!

This assignment is not easy! When you have completed it well, you will never, never forget the argument, the
examples, and the development of the article. More than likely you will also be learning that, when you write research
papers and other critical papers, you ability to write the precis is central to the basics of analysis, synthesis,
comparison, and other key, higher order thinking skills absolutely required for your success in college and in the
profession or career you have chosen when you graduate.

Palo Alto College


                                           STEP #1
                                           Begin with an article that is relevant and
                                           interesting, one with meat to it.
                                           Read it and make sure that you
                                           understand it.

                                           STEP #2
                                           Select the most important points
                                           contained in the article.
                                           Underline or highlight those points.

                                           STEP #3
                                           Collect your key points.

                      Salt Lake City
                      IOC awarded SLC the 2002 Winter Olympics.
                      leak from disgruntled employee of organizing committee
                      questions from member of IOC
                      bidders suspected of bribing IOC members
                      four groups investigating
                      IOC members heavily courted
                      members pledge to return gifts of over $150
                      IRS may investigate
                      IOC members serve without pay but are allowed to accept plane tickets, accommodations, and lavish
                      looks like nearly $400,000 was paid in scholarships and financial aid to 13 students
                      six recipients related to IOC members
                      members not accepting blame but citing past practices
                      games will probably still be held in Salt Lake City
                      city worried about sponsors pulling out
                      IOC investigating
                      some members may be forced to resign
                      reform is needed

                                           STEP #4
                                           Place your ideas in sentences.
                                           Arrange your sentences into one unit,
                                           the "Synopsis."

          By an overwhelming margin, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Salt
          Lake City, Utah, as the site for the 2002 Winter Olympics. But based on leaks from
          a disgruntled employee of the local organizing committee and questions from a
          member of the IOC, the Salt Lake City bidders are suspected of bribing IOC members.
          So far four groups have opened investigations. The IOC members serve without pay
          and are pledged to refuse gifts in excess of $150; but they are heavily courted and
          allowed to accept plane tickets, hotel accommodations, and lavish dinners. It now
          looks like they also took nearly $400,000 in scholarship money and financial aid to
          13 students, six of whom were related to IOC members. So far no one is accepting
          blame; they are only citing past, similar behaviors. While the games will probably
          still be held in Salt Lake City, local organizers are concerned about the pull-out
          of sponsors and the possibility that the IRS might begin an investigation. The IOC
          is investigating and some members may be forced to resign. Reform is needed.

Montgomery County Community College

Paraphrase, Summary, and Precis

   Three writing strategies that will help you understand what you are reading are the paraphrase, summary, and precis.
   All three ask you to put the information that you're reading into your own words.


   When you paraphrase, you are explaining your source's argument, following its line of reasoning and its sequence of
   ideas, in your own words. The paraphrase should give the reader an accurate understanding of the author's position on
   the topic. The purpose of a paraphrase is to convey the meaning of the original message and, in doing so, to prove that
   you understand the passage well enough to restate it. Remember, your job is not to prove yourself correct, but to
   uncover and explain all the facts and arguments involved in your subject.

   To paraphrase, first substitute synonyms for the passage's more important terms. These synonyms should be accurate
   both in denotative and connotative meaning. It does not matter yet whether you agree or disagree with the passage; it
   only matters that you comprehend what the show that you understand what the passage says.

   This restatement preserves both the original meaning of the passage and the author's position on the matter, but it may
   be difficult to read at some points. Fine tune the sentence construction, possibly even adding a phrase here and there to
   illustrate a point more clearly or show a connection between two ideas.

   The paraphrase alters the wording of the passage without changing its meaning. It retains the basic logic of the
   argument, its sequence of ideas, and even the examples used in the passage. Most importantly, it accurately conveys
   the author's meaning and opinion.


   A summary restates only the author's main ideas, omitting all the examples and evidence used in supporting and
   illustrating those points. The function of a summary is to represent the scope and emphasis of a relatively large amount
   of material in an efficient and concise form. In your own words, state the thesis, main arguments and conclusion of the
   original. In both the paraphrase and summary, the author's meaning and opinion have been retained. However, in the
   case of the summary, examples and illustrative elements of the passage are omitted. Because they can be used to
   encapsulate everything from a long narrative passage of an essay, to a chapter in a book, to the entire book itself,
   summaries can be tremendously helpful.


   The precis (pronounced pray-see) is a type of summarizing that insists on an exact reproduction of the logic,
   organization, and emphasis of the original texts. It is of particular use in situations in which you want to detail the
   relative order, proportions, and relationships of the original parts of a text. An effective precis retains the logic,
   development, and argument of the original in much shorter form. Thus, a precis is useful when you are dealing with
   lengthy passages that demand careful attention to the logic and organization of an argument.

   To write an effective precis, read the passage several times for a full understanding. Note key points. It may, in fact, be
   helpful to underline these words. Restate each paragraph in one or two sentences. In cases where there are very short
   paragraphs, combine them in your restatement. Make sure that you retain the precise order of the original points, and
   combine the sentences into one or more smooth paragraphs. Finally, check your precis against the original to be sure
   that it is exact and retains the order, proportions, and relationships of the original.

University of Kansas


                   The following has been excerpted from Warriner's English
                   Grammar and Composition: Complete Course, pages 429-437.

                   A precis is a brief summary. Writing a precis is valuable training
                   in composition. Since the writing requires you to be clear and
                   concise, you must choose your words carefully and arrange them
                   skillfully you get the maximum amount of meaning into the
                   minimum space.

                   In addition to its value as a writing exercise, precis work is
                   excellent reading practice. In order to summarize another's ideas
                   in your own words, you must understand the idea thoroughly.

                   In school and in life after school, there are many situations that
                   call for the writing of a brief, accurate summary of reading. You
                   are frequently asked to prepare a summary of what you have
                   read in your textbook or in the library. Answers on examinations
                   often require a brief summary. People in business, in club work,
                   and in social work must prepare short digests of articles and

                   Study the following facts about precis and the basic steps in

                      1.A precis is a short summary. It is not a paraphrase,
                         which merely says in different and simpler words exactly
                         what the passage being paraphrased has to say. A
                         paraphrase may be a long as the passage itself. A precis
                         rarely is more than one-third the length of the original
                         selection and may be only one-fourth as long.
                      2.A precis gives only the "heart" of a passage. It omits
                         repetition and such details as examples, illustrations, and
                         adjectives unless they are of unusual importance.
                      3.A precis is written entirely in the words of the person
                         writing it, not in the words of the original selection.
                         Avoid the temptation to lift long phrases and whole
                         sentences from the original.
                      4.A precis is written from the point of view of the
                         author whose work is being summarized. Do not begin
                         with such expressions as "This author says" or "The
                         paragraph means." Begin as though you were summarizing
                         your own writing.

                   In writing a precis proceed as follows:

                      1.Read carefully, sentence by sentence, the passage to be
                         summarized. Try to grasp the writer's main point. Spotting
                         the topic sentence will help. Look up in the dictionary any
                         words whose meaning is not absolutely clear. As you read,
                         take brief notes to be used in your writing.
                      2.When you have finally decided what the author's main
                         point is, write it out in your own words. Do not use the
                         wording of the original except for certain key words which
                         you may find indispensable. If you cannot translate the
                         idea into language of your own, you do not understand
                         them very well. Be especially careful not to rely too much
                         on the topic sentence. Do not add any opinions or ideas of
                         your own.
                      3.Revise your writing until you are sure that you have given
                         an accurate summary.
                      4.Usually you will find your precis is too long, if it is more
                         than one-third the length of the original. Continue your
                         revision until you have reduced the precis to the proper
                         length. In this careful revision lies the principal value of the
                         precis as a composition exercise.

Montgomery Blair High School