How to Write a Précis (Writing Guide + Examples)

Last Updated: 24 September 2021

How to write a Precis

It is common for students to confuse a précis with rhetorical analysis, reflection essays, and critical analysis. We get to clarify the confusion in just a moment.

However, for what it is worth, college life prepares you for the unforgiving life that awaits after graduation. One way it does this is through regular assignments that are timed. You can never afford to submit an assignment late if you want to be classified for a college degree.

Now, when undertaking college education, précis writing is one of the most important yet challenging tasks. At least, from our internal survey, it emerged that 3 out of 5 students find it hard to write a précis. The students also do not understand what a précis is and how to write a précis step by step.

In this article, we have put together important facts on how to write a précis, we explain what it means, its rules, and give you links to précis examples.

What is a Précis?

It would be prudent to begin by first reflecting on what a précis contains.

Well, it entails the thesis of the author, the main message or idea of the author. So, when you are asked to write a précis, you need to simply write short summary of the essential ideas of a longer composition between several texts.

It’s also known as a position paper, which means you create a claim based on what you see as the connections between the text. What do these texts have in common? Are there similar ideas that appear in the readings so far? What are they?

A rhetorical précis can be defined as a summary of an original piece of text that includes the main ideas, arguments, and insights of the thesis of the author in that text.

It is a clear, accurate, and concise summary of a longer text in a connected, readable, and elaborate manner. You can also refer to it as an academic summary as it involves summarizing the main argument of a piece of academic writing, such as a peer-reviewed article.

In simple terms, a précis is like a synopsis of a text, article, or any piece of literature. Précis is a term borrowed from French, which means summary or

It should never be a narrative of what the author said in sequence. Rather, it is more of providing a skeleton of the arguments in the piece of work. A précis is also not rewriting or an essay.

Qualities and Features of a Rhetorical Précis

When you are assigned to write a précis, here are some important elements that must feature in your paper:

Précis writing is important as it helps the writer discriminate between what is regarded as useful and that which is never useful. It is a comprehension exercise that allows the writer to present the gist of a passage in their own words

Rules (or Do’s) of Précis Writing

There are ten golden rules when writing a précis – you can call them the Dos of précis writing.

  1. Read the passage/text and determine its theme. While reading focus on the theme or major argument expressed by the author.
  2. Précis writing means the art of remodeling. Your précis writing should reflect your prowess in using your own words to express the meaning from a text.
  3. Be concise, accurate, and clear. Précis writing is never complete without brevity, yet it should not come at the expense of clarity or accuracy. Throw in some economy with words, avoid ambiguity, obscurity, and vagueness.
  4. It should convince even those who have not read the text. When writing a précis, ensure that it is intelligible to anyone who has not read the original text. By reading your thesis, the reader should engage with the original text.
  5. A précis uses your own language. Remember that a précis does not mean paraphrasing. Read and comprehend, then write.
  6. Forever stick to the third person. Begin your précis by identifying what the author says.
  7. Do not give a personal opinion. Never give your personal comments or reflection on the piece of work. You will be deviating from précis writing. It should follow the order of the original text.
  8. A précis by the rule of the thumb should be a third of the original text. Mostly, academic précis writing suggests it should be between 100 and 200 words. A précis of a 20-page book or article should be between 2-3 pages. Look at how to write a précis for a research article.
  9. Balance your précis. Make sure you are not just filling the space with words but with substance from the text.
  10. When there are statistics involved, use discretion. Unless the statistics are inevitable and utterly important drop it when writing your précis.

Don’ts when writing a Précis

When writing a précis, avoid doing this

Remember, a rhetorical précis demonstrates that you have mastered the art of writing. It equally demonstrates that you are able to express your thoughts cogently and intelligibly. Therefore, you must uphold high levels of clarity, correctness, objectivity, conciseness, and coherence.

The Structure/Format of a Précis

Even though a critical or rhetorical précis is not an essay such as argumentative or expository essays, it follows the same structure.

A précis has an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

The introduction is usually a sentence with the author’s name, the title of the original piece, date of publishing, and thesis statement of the author. You can use verbs such as “argues,” “explains,” “proves,” “expands the argument,” “demonstrates,” etc.

Some writing experts and professors have suggested that you can start off your précis with a hook and then restate the thesis of the author of the original piece.

Each of the body paragraphs of your précis should explain different parts of the original piece. Focus on the ideas, purpose, and evidence presented by the author.  

Do not interpret, criticize, or analyze the arguments of the author. Where necessary, use quotes or phrases from the text but intelligibly. For instance: Paulo Coelho’s quotation, “It’s part of the human condition to want to share things—thoughts, ideas, opinions,” could become “Humans want to share ideas with others.”

The conclusion of your précis should restate the main idea. It should have a summary of everything and avoid making any personal judgments on the original piece.

How to Write a Précis Step by Step

So, you get a prompt like this one from your English 1102 class:

OBJECTIVE: Practice summarizing evidence and conclusions of academic articles in the rhetorical précis format in order to, ultimately, compose an annotated bibliography using sources that pertain to a topic of your interest.

PART I: Précis

  1. Select 2 relevant sources for examination. Both should be scholarly/peer-reviewed.
  2. Read carefully looking for main conclusions and the evidence to support those conclusions.
  3. Write a short paragraph for each source following the rhetorical précis model found on pp. 212 of the Guide to First-Year Writing.

You first wonder what you should do, how you can start, and how you are going to complete the paper. Okay, instead of panicking, follow these eight steps and write a rhetorical précis that appeals to your professor – one they will forever use as an example. So how do you get to do it step-by-step? Here is how to proceed writing your précis:

First Step – Read the prompt

Like other assignments, you need to begin by reading the rhetorical précis essay prompt. In most cases, the prompt specifies the number of words. For instance, your professor might require you to write an 800–1000-word essay in MLA format. The prompt will also specify the exact pages or chapters if it is a book.

Second Step: Read the original piece

Read the text that you are to write a précis on several times. If it is short 2-5 times is recommended, else two times is the standard for long texts. Use the headings and subheadings as your guide to getting the gist of the text.

Ensure that you read the assigned readings and you understand the essence of each article.  In other words, what is the central argument, as it relates to the theme being discussed in class?

Third Step: Re-read the original and take notes

Annotate or mark the text as you read. Here is where you highlight the major points that stick out. You can do this by underline or highlight the most important points in the original text. If you are reading using PDF readers, you can take advantage of the power to highlight and add notes. It helps you knit together the thesis of the author.

Fourth Step: Put together the highlighted ideas

If there is evidence used by the author or novel words, take a keen interest and look them up. Also, study the statistics used to corroborate facts in the text.

Collect these highlighted passages in point-form. Write a list of two or three main ideas that the essays, articles, or the original pieces have in common.

Fifth Step: Develop the thesis

Restate the authors’ thesis in your own words. When doing this be clear, accurate, and concise. If it is a long piece, try to find the major arguments that the author is bringing forth. Write a brief outline of your argument. 

Sixth Step: Breakdown your précis (make an outline)

Provide one to two sentence summaries of each paragraph from the author’s work. If it is a long text, divide it into sections or chapters and give a summary. For a précis on a novel, division by chapter would be prudent.

Seventh Step: Write the précis

write the précis. It should feature a short introductory paragraph, usually one sentence. Develop the body paragraph as outlined in the previous sections. Conclude the précis by summarizing the facts and restating the thesis.

Think of it this way – you are summarizing the lecture for a friend who missed the class and the material will be on an upcoming test. Also, you may want to include a brief statement about the tone, audience, or purpose of the article.

Ensure that you do great work when citing a précis. Have consistency in placing the in-text citations as per the recommended formatting style such as MLA, APA, or Chicago formats.

As well, ensure that at the end of your paper you have works cited, reference, or reference list page. Likewise, have an outstanding title page.

Eighth Step: Proofread, edit, and polish

Proofread, edit, and submit the précis. Consider revising the assignment prompt/instructions. Also, compare your précis with the original text and weed out any similarity. Focus on your grammar and spelling while ensuring you maintain coherence and clarity. You can read it out loud or take advantage of a third eye, such as online editing services.

Paragraphing: The Four Sentence Rhetorical Précis

When writing your précis, you can adopt the four-sentence rhetorical précis paragraph format. It is a highly structured paragraph that records the essential elements of the discourse, whether spoken or written.

Notably, each of the four sentences bears specific information as we shall see shortly. When writing with this format, the précis might have brief quotations that convey the sense of style, unique voice, and tone of the author.

First Sentence

Second Sentence

Third Sentence

Fourth Sentence

The four-sentence Précis Template

First Sentence: (Author's full name) _______________________________________,  in his/her (essay, novel, poem, article, painting, short story, etc.) _______________________ (year for APA attribution)__________, asserts that ________________________________________.
Second sentence: (Author's last name) ____________________________________ supports this assertion by (showing, offering, using, citing, challenging, etc.) _______________________________examples of______________________________________________________ . 

Third sentence: His/her purpose is to __________________________________. 

Fourth sentence: He/She (establishes, creates, constructs, suggests, offers, presents, etc.)   ____________________ a/an ______________________________________________________with/for his/her audience of ______________________________________________________________________________ who _________________.

Sample four-sentence rhetorical précis

Here are some examples of well-written précis paragraphs.

Example 1

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.

Adapted from Source

Example 2

“Sheridan Baker, in his essay "Attitudes" (1966), asserts that writers' attitudes toward their subjects, their audiences, and themselves determine to a large extent the quality of their prose. Baker supports this assertion by showing examples of how inappropriate attitudes can make writing unclear, pompous, or boring, concluding that a good writer "will be respectful toward his audience, considerate toward his readers, and somehow amiable toward human failings" (58). His purpose is to make his readers aware of the dangers of negative attitudes in order to help them become better writers. He establishes an informal relationship with his audience of college students who are interested in learning to write "with conviction.”

Analysis of the précis paragraph

NOTE that the first sentence identifies the author (Baker), the genre (essay), the title and date, and uses an active verb (asserts) and the relative pronoun that to explain what exactly Baker asserts. The second sentence explains the first by offering chronological examples from Baker's essay, while the third sentence suggests the author's purpose and WHY (in order to) he has set out that purpose (or seems to have set out that purpose -- not all essays are explicit about this information and readers have to put the pieces together). The final sentence identifies the primary audience of the essay (college students) and suggests how this audience is brought into/connected to the essay's purpose.

Example 3

Toni Morrison, in her essay "Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks," implies that racism in the United States has affected the craft and process of American novelists. Morrison supports her implication by describing how Ernest Hemingway writes about black characters in his novels and short stories. Her purpose is to make her readers aware of the cruel reality of racism underlying some of the greatest works of American literature in order to help them examine the far-reaching effects racism has not only on those discriminated against but also on those who discriminate. She establishes a formal and highly analytical tone with her audience of racially mixed (but probably mainly white), theoretically sophisticated readers, and critical interpreters of American literature.

Example 4

“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 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 ideas she opposes are old-fashioned positions.”

Adopted from this source.

Example 5

Statesman and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson, in The Declaration of Independence (1776), argues that God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness entitle the colonists to freedom from the oppressive British government and guarantee them the right to declare independence. He supports his claim by first invoking the fact of our inalienable rights, then he establishes the circumstances under which a people can throw off an oppressive government; he next proceeds to show that these circumstances have been created by King George II whose oppressive rule now forces the colonists to the separation. The purpose of this document is to convince all readers of the necessity to officially declare independence from Great Britain in order to establish a separate independent nation, the United States of America. Jefferson establishes a passionate and challenging tone for a worldwide audience, but particularly the British and King George III.

Sample Précis Questions

Here are two examples of précis homework assignment questions:

1. Write the précis of" liberation, division, and war" 

Write a précis, which contains the following elements:

  1. what is the author's thesis
  2. how​‌‌‌‍‍‌‍‍‌‍‌‍‍‍‌‌‌‍‍​ the author develops the thesis?
  3. why you chose this reading? (If this helped you? by how?​‌‌‌‍‍‌‍‍‌‍‌‍‍‍‌‌‌‍‍​)

2. Writing a Précis

Lippi-Green, “Teaching Children to Discriminate”

Checklist of a Good Précis

We cannot conclude our précis writing guide without exploring some great features of a précis. Here is a checklist to ensure your précis stands out.

Our Final thoughts on Précis Writing

Our insights in this comprehensive guide can help you understand how you can start and complete writing a précis. To be clear, no professor likes reading mediocre précis. So, make sure yours stands out.

Now that you know how to write a précis, we wish you well.

However, in modern times, students might seek help with writing different essays. When you have a part-time job, no time to complete assignments, or you simply suck at writing, writing a précis can be torturous, which is why you should trust online custom writing services.

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Let us help you sail through the turbulence of college education. Above all, we believe that reading this article informs you more on how to write a précis. You are ready for the challenge, write it like you the pro you are!