Thursday, January 11, 2007

Precis Writing

Precis (pray-see, pl. pray-seez) writing is a basic and very useful skill. It has been variously referred to as 'abbreviation', 'subtraction', 'abstract', 'summary', and ;condensation'. The French gave it the name 'precis' — the pruning away of all that is inessential.

"A precis is a brief, original summary of the important ideas given in a long selection. Its aim is to give the general effect created by the original selection."

It is a concise and lucid summary that forsakes all unnecessary details (including illustrations, amplifications, and embellishments) in favor of reproducing the logic, development, organization and emphasis of the original. Retaining the substance of a fuller statement, it seeks to articulate another authors thoughts by extracting the maximum amount of information and carefully conveying it in a minimum number of words.

The Purpose:
Precis writing develops intelligent reading and clear, accurate writing. It is a skill of both analysis and genesis that critically questions every thought included and excluded, each word used to express those thoughts, and the proportions and arrangements of those thoughts — both in the original and in the precis. In its exactitude, the precis mercilessly reveals an author's wordiness and looseness or thinness of thought and construction. It should strengthen your style, sense of proportion and emphasis, and sensitivity to word meanings and an author's viewpoint,

The Object:
Precis writing is an antidote to passive reading. Its object is accuracy, completeness, clearness, and brevity. The test of a precis lies in whether it is clear to one who has not seen the original.

"Next to Latin prose composition, it is the best means of developing the power of penetration, of seizing upon salient parts in a passage, and expressing these in clear and vigorous speech." (Evans, A Handbook of Precis Writing)

Preliminary to Precis Writing:
1. Abstracting
2. Paraphrasing
3. Vocabulary
4. Punctuation
5. Indirect speech
6. Title

1. An abstract is a condensation of a passage, the important words, phrases, and sentences containing the essential thoughts being worked as simply as possible into sentences. It simply requires the ability to pick out essential facts. Exercises in abstracting will involve underscoring the essential facts in a passage and combining them into a single whole. (N.b.: Here 'abstract' is used in its narrow sense to mean a digest or running summary.)

2. "A paraphrase is a restatement of a difficult passage, stating clearly and fully in language of the simplest sort just what the passage means. Because it clarifies hidden meanings and obscure passages, it is usually longer than the original." Precis writing involves the ability to paraphrase, but adds to it concision, all the while being careful to not to lose or distort the original meaning. Exercises in paraphrasing might involve transposing poetry to prose, explaining the meaning of proverbs, etc.

3. "In precis writing it is necessary to say as much as possible in as few words as possible." A word may substitute for a phrase and a phrase for a clause. The concern is for the precise meaning or connotation of a word.

4. Effective sentence combining and the proper use of the colon and semicolon in punctuation is an aid to good precis writing.

5. Generally a precis should be written in reported or indirect speech. This means a precis will be in third person, in the past tense.

6. "A precis title must be cold and matter of fact, not attractive to the imaginative mind. It is a precis of the precis."

A Precis Writing Exercise for You Try
"You may have wondered why you fail to carry over into your writing the vigor and ease of your ordinary conversation. The probability is that when your work is criticized as stiff and formal, on the one hand, or as tame and colorless, on the other, you are in your writing simply not being fair to yourself. You have associated with the term 'composition' ideas of unreal dignity or owlishness. One often detects this tone in the letters of practical men who do not write much. Or you have been so disturbed by the notion that you must be clear, correct, and concise, and must diligently herd the 'sacred cow of composition' — unity, coherence, and emphasis — that your writing has lost all the native hue of resolution; all the joy had gone out of it; and it has become flaccid, pale, tame. all writing done without joy — or love, or hate, or pride, or other quality of earnestness — is like that. In your conversation you were not thinking of rules; you were enjoying yourself. In your writing you were miserable; and the misery shows just as plainly in the one as the joy in the other."
(Robert M. Gay, Fact, Fancy and Opinion, Little, Brown & Co.) 197 words
Now, follow the steps below to write your own precis of the above passage. Then post it as a comment to this post.

Ask of the above precis:
  1. Are the opening sentences brief and to the point? Which is best?
  2. Which opening sentence tends to show best what the passage expresses?
  3. Do the sentence following the opening sentence amplify the essentials shown in the opening sentence?
  4. Which precis clarifies the author's best thoughts? Have additional thoughts been added?
  5. Is the precis clear to one who has not seen the original?

"It will be well to remember the object of precis writing: a brief and clear summary — or precis — of what you have first carefully read. No words, phrases, clauses, or sentences which are unessential to the thought of the selection, are considered. Every unnecessary word is discarded until all that you have left is the thought, the dominating idea, of what you have read. Then in your own words, give this thought as briefly and clearly as possible. Your sentences must be carefully constructed. Do not omit any essential articles, prepositions, or conjunctions."

First Reading:
  1. Read every word slowly and carefully until you clearly understand the sense of the passage.
  2. Look up all unfamiliar words, phrases, and allusions
  3. Identify the dominating idea, the essential thought, of the passage. Ask if this idea were omitted, would the fundamental meaning of the passage be changed?
  4. Determine what emphasis and space to give the thought in each section; write a heading for each section.
Second Reading:
  1. Underscore with a pencil the important facts containing the essential thoughts. This is a process of differentiation between what is essential and what is not. Generally you will omit examples, illustrations, conversations, and repetitions
  2. Reread your selections to see that they are wise and adequate.
  3. Determine if your underscoring expresses the main ideas.
Final Reading:
Rapidly and intensely reread the origin, dwelling on the important facts selected for a precis.

First Copy:
1. Close the book/original.
2. Write a summary of the thoughts as you remember them.
3. Compare with the original and correct, asking:
  • Did you retain the logical order and development of these thoughts?
  • Did you emphasize the dominant thought or erroneously emphasize a minor thought?
  • Did you omit any necessary facts? names? dates? places?
  • Is your precis clear to one who has not seen the original?
  • Are your sentences clear and well-constructed?
  • Did you use third person and the past tense?
  • Did you punctuate and spell correctly?
  • Did you make any grammatical or rhetorical errors?
Final Copy:
  1. Read your first copy through carefully.
  2. Condense wherever you can, substituting single words for phrases and phrases for longer clauses.
  3. Use only simple figures of speech.
  4. Clearly and concisely express the essential points.
  5. Reduce verbiage while still making the point and retaining some of the flavor and spirit of the original.
  6. Be fair to the sentiments expressed, even if you don't agree with them.
  7. Rewrite neatly.
Guide to a Successful Precis:
  1. Understand the essential facts or dominating idea of the passage.
  2. In your opening sentence express what the passage tends to show.
  3. With as few sentences as possible enlarge on the essential shown in the opening sentence.
  4. Summarize only what the author says; do not add your own opinions.
  5. As far as possible, use your own words.
  6. Ask whether the precis is clear to one who has not seen the original.
A precis is usually reduced to at least one-fourth of its original length and frequently much more. How long it is will be determined by its purpose and by the nature of the original.

Alternative Precis Assignments:

1. The Single Sentence Precis:
The single sentence precise is an exercise in hard thinking and tests the unity of thought in the original. It also provides practice in the structure of long sentences and the proper use of the colon, semi-colon, and connectives.

2. The Varied Length and Repeated Precis:
Precis of various lengths can be required with assigned number of words. For example, I could ask you to reduce a passage to half its length, then to reduce that precis in half again, and, finally, to write a single sentence precis.

3. The Oral Precis:
A passage to precis can be orally dictated or taken from a sound file or audiobook. Such readings should begin short and gradually increase in length. In longer selections, you may need to take notes. A special challenge of the oral precis is to maintain a balance between a not-too-full beginning and a not-too-scanty ending. You could also listen to poem or passage and then prepare an oral precis. The oral precis is an excellent but very challenging test of listening and oral comprehension skills.
(adapted from article in Classical Co-op)


  1. Ms. Vanessa,

    Thank you very much for posting this valuable information regading Precis. I will do the practice precis and will post the same.

    Thank you very much,



  2. Rajeev

    I hope this material helps you. You still haven't told me what kind of articles or pieces you have to write precis of.

    Since you have had difficulty with precis writing, you should start with writing practice precis of short pieces,

    You can also find more help on precis writing by searching "summary writing."

  3. Mrs. Vanessa,

    Thanks for replying. Actually, Precis are an indispensable part of higher exams like recruitment to Government of India Exams, legal writing etc. Some days back I attempted an Exam. for the Government jobs somewhat related to my studies. But, there I found a Precis of 600-700 words and I was asked to reduce it into 200 words.

    I was not prepared so I can expect my result. But, next time I don't want to repeat the same mistake.

    Madam, I am very confused about whether there is any difference between Abstract writing, Summary writing, Precis writing and para-phrasing? Is there any difference between them?



  4. Rajeev

    Precis writing is important but it is not necessarily part of all higher exams. As just one example, neither the GRE not the GRE subject test require precis writing. None of my PhD exams at the University of California called for precis writing. However, I continually used summarizing skills while researching my dissertation.

    As I have mentioned more than once, high level reading comprehension of complex texts is probably the best preparation for precis writing or any other summarizing task.

    The precis lesson answered most of your questions about the difference between abstracts, summaries writing, precis and paraphrasing. That's a clear example of gaps in your reading.

  5. Ms. Vanessa,

    I do accept that there may be some gaps in my reading and I promise I will concentrate on this aspect.

    Thank you very much,


  6. Hi Ms. Vanessa,

    I have tried to attempt the Precis- don't know how much I am successful.

    You are criticized for not able to carry over into your writing the vigor and ease of your ordinary conversation as you were laying too much emphasis on its appearance. Might be that your stressing on strict rules of composition - unity, coherence and emphasis - resulted in its losing charm, joy and it became pale, flaccid and tame like the writings without the qualities of earnetness - love, hate or pride etc.

    If it is not correct, kindly do it for me for once. Thank you in advance.

    Madam, can you suggest some more sites on Precis, where I can practise. I tried to find but could not. I want to practice more in this field.



  7. Still too wordy - redundant adjectives, wordy sentence structures.

  8. Example

    Original text

    'At a typical football match we are likely to see players committing deliberate fouls, often behind the referee's back. They might try to take a throw-in or a free kick from an incorrect but more advantageous positions in defiance of the clearly stated rules of the game. They sometimes challenge the rulings of the referee or linesmen in an offensive way which often deserves exemplary punishment or even sending off. No wonder spectators fight amongst themselves, damage stadiums, or take the law into their own hands by invading the pitch in the hope of affecting the outcome of the match.' [100 words]


    Unsportsmanklike behaviour by footballers may cause hooliganism among spectators. [9 words]

  9. Ms. Vanessa,

    You have summarized the whole stanza into 9 words only. But, I want to practise transacribing stanzas into one-third of their original. So, keeping this fact in view, was my Precis correct? Can you transacribe it into 1/3rd words.



  10. Rajeev
    Didnt I already tell you that your version was still too wordy?

    Try again. My doing it for you teaches you nothing.


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