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How to Write a Précis: Everything You Need to Know to Ace Your Assignment

Young college student taking notes on how to write a precis

Need to learn how to write a précis fast but not sure what to do? A précis is a less common type of assignment you may encounter in your academic career, so if you’re scratching your head wondering what in the world this is, you’re definitely not alone.

You’ll likely encounter précis writing in a variety of fields and industries, especially those pertaining to the sciences, economics, business, and legal fields. Writing a précis is a big component on many government exams around the world and will be a requirement for passing tests and certifications, so it’s important to know how to write one. But it can be difficult to determine where to start if you’re new to the academic world.

A précis is an assignment that requires you to summarize critical arguments and points within a text. While it might sound straightforward, précis writing can actually be pretty difficult because it’s not your typical type of summary. You’ll need to get a little technical.

If you’re feeling a little lost and confused, don’t worry. We’re going to tell you how to write a précis that gets the point across, and we’ll give you all the tools you need to get it done.

College student working on notes to summarize from a book

What is a Précis?

Before you learn how to write a précis, it’s important that you know what a précis actually is. Otherwise, how will you ever know that you’re doing the right thing?

The answer can be found directly in the definition of the word. “Précis“ is a French word that translates to “specific.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in English it means “a concise summary of essential points, statements, or facts.”

A précis is essentially a summary of a text, article, or other published work. However, it’s not a paraphrased summary where you write your interpretation of what the author is saying. Instead, it’s a brief, concise version of what is written in the text. In other words, you’re trying to take the author’s article and condense it into a smaller, shorter version.

Put it this way: if you regularly read the abstracts of scholarly articles, you’ve read a précis. Abstracts use the same language and make the same points, in the same order, that they are presented in the actual article or text. There is a heavy focus on the same data and keywords that are used within the article to give the reader an idea of the kind of evidence used to form the core points and ideas.

Remember that a précis is a summary – not a critical analysis. You’re not being asked to add your opinion, or reflect on whether specific points are true or valid. All you’re doing is highlighting the author’s main points with clarity and objectivity.

Female sitting cross legged on her bed working on a thesis

So What’s The Difference Between a Précis And an Article Summary?

Before you get to the précis writing step, it’s important to note that while a précis is technically a summary, it’s not the same thing as an article summary. While it’s very common to get these two types of assignments mixed up, you want to avoid the confusion because your professor is marking you on one specific type of assignment.

The key difference between a précis and an article summary is that a précis is very specific and focuses on the most important parts of an author’s thesis, while an article summary contains a broad collection of all of the points made in an article. A précis contains only the most important or essential arguments or ideas of a text.

Here are a few other differences to keep in mind:

● A précis requires the author’s main points to be presented in the order the author presents them, while an article summary can be in any order.

● While your article summary relies heavily on paraphrasing and summarizing in your own words, a précis focuses on using the same language and keywords as the original source.

● Most of the time, a précis requires a specific heading, while an article summary does not.

● A précis is basically a replica of the original text, while an article summary is based on the writer’s interpretation of the points the author is making.

● While an article summary might take the form of a speech or presentation, a précis is always a written piece.

If you need more information on writing an article summary instead of a précis, check out our blog, where we break down how to summarize an article effectively.

Close up of student flipping through information in a notebook

Why am I Writing a Précis?

Professors will ask you to write an article summary because paraphrasing is a great indication of how you have absorbed, learned, and understood the author’s information. Since a précis maintains the same language and verbiage the original text uses without relying on paraphrasing, you’re probably wondering what the point of this assignment is in the first place.

A précis has its place both in the academic world as well as the professional world, so there are many times throughout your career that you might encounter this type of project or assignment.

If you plan to complete a higher level in the academic world, you’ll have to know how to write a précis if you plan on publishing articles or journals within your field. Abstracts are a key piece of any scholarly article, and give the reader an idea of whether or not the article is relevant to their research.

In the workforce, a précis is more common than you’d think. People in management positions rarely have time to go through and read reports, updates, articles, or other types of research. For that reason, they’ll rely on other team members to write a précis that extracts the core information they need to know to make an educated decision.

Regardless of the reason why you’re asked to write a précis, these tips and steps will help you make sure you do it properly so you can impress your boss, your professor, or anyone else who requires the work from you.

Male college student working on a thesis from a bean bag chair

What You Need to Remember About Précis Writing

Here are some characteristics of good précis writing that you should remember while you work on your assignment:

● Conciseness: Stay clear and to the point. Pick out the essentials and stick to key information.

● Objectivity: Again, it’s important to remember that this is not a critical analysis. Approach your précis with a neutral perspective and relay the facts the author has presented.

● Minimal Paraphrasing: Your goal is to use the same tone, keywords, and language the original author uses. You’re not paraphrasing the author’s thesis with your own interpretation.

● Relevance: Stick to the key points and ideas, and leave out any information that isn’t essential to the author’s thesis. Most of the time you don’t have the space to do this anyway, and will need to cut your words down to fit properly in the précis.

Now that you know what it is you have to do, it’s time to talk about how to write a précis. We’re going to break it down into steps for you so you can follow along and organize your assignment effectively.

Male student in a yellow shirt looking at a precis example for studying

Précis Format: What to Include in Your Précis

Understanding the right essay format to use is crucial to making sure you’re turning in the right paper for the right assignment.

When learning how to write a précis, the best place to start is understanding what needs to be included in your assignment. The structure of a précis is actually one of the easier parts of the assignment because you don’t really have a lot of freedom to go off and do your own thing. You have to follow the same order the author uses in their text, which gives you a great starting point for formatting your own précis.

So, with that in mind, all you need to do is lay out the points in a paragraph and put it into the right format. Most of the time you can use the basic essay format of an introduction, body, and conclusion. In terms of length, most précis assignments are brief. If your professor didn’t give you a specific length requirement, stick to this general rule from Texas A&M University: if a published article is 20 pages, write 2-3 pages for your précis. Aim for no more than a quarter of the length of the text.

Female college student highlighting precis notes in her poetry book

How to Write a Précis in 5 Steps

Now that you have a bit of background information to work with and you know what a précis is, we’re going to go over the 5 steps of how to write a précis. These 5 steps aren’t an official method of writing a précis, but they are a guideline that you can follow to make sure you do everything you can to get the grade you need.

We’ll break them down with more clarity for you next, but here are the 5 core steps:

1. Read the text and gather information.

2. Determine what the author’s main points or arguments are.

3. Write out those points into a paragraph.

4. Add transitions and connections to bring those points together.

5. Review and edit your work.

Follow these steps, and the précis writing process will become easier, stronger, and more effective overall. Now let’s get into how you can go about making sure you tackle each of these steps.

Step 1: Read The Text

Like most summary-based assignments, the first step in learning how to write a précis is reading the text. That sounds pretty straightforward, right?

As you read, take notes on the important information the author presents. One of the core parts of a précis is extracting the essential ideas and arguments that are integral to the author’s thesis. A great way to do this is in this initial first step is to write down everything you think is important as you read. In the next step, you’ll learn to determine which information is essential, but for now, just take note of everything that seems important.

Make sure you read the article or text a few times over before you start the writing part. Sometimes we don’t see things the first time around that we notice once we’ve gone through a few times, and that could mean missing out on important data.

In the next step, you’re going to pull out those arguments and ideas and determine which ones are essential, so it’s a good idea to take notes in a spreadsheet or Google Sheets document at this point in the process. This way, you can make a column for the note and a column for its importance, which will help you rank how important the information is to the précis in the next step.

Step 2: Pull Out The Author’s Main Arguments or Ideas

The entire point of your précis is to collect and summarize the author’s most important information. Therefore, this should be your second step, and it should take up the bulk of the time you spend on your paper.

Remember, you’re looking for the most essential information in the text. Your reader doesn’t need to see every single piece of evidence or data. If they wanted that, they would just read the original text.

That being said, it can be a little tricky trying to determine which pieces of information actually are essential, and which can be left out. Here are some things to consider and questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to determine which information is essential:

● Without this fact, would the author still be able to come to their conclusion?

● Does this particular fact make you change your mind about the topic or thesis?

● Are any important keywords used in this point?

● Did this point make you have an “ah-ha” moment where an idea clicked in your mind?

● If this point wasn’t there, would you think differently?

Another good way you can determine which information to include is to go back to your document where you wrote down the author’s points and rank each one based on its relevance, importance, or overall significance. When you’re done, start with the highest ranking points first and move lower down the scale until you come across points you can remove.

Female college student paraphrasing notes for an essay by hand

Step 3: Write Those Points Into a Paragraph

Naturally, the next step in learning how to write a précis is doing just that: writing.

Once you’ve gathered the author’s main points and ideas, write them down in a paragraph. Keep them in the order they’re presented within the original text.

Here’s the tricky part: you’ll need to be able to re-write the author’s points without copying them directly. You’re not paraphrasing, but you are instead re-stating them using the same language, tone, and style as the original author. This won’t be as difficult as completely interpreting and presenting information in different terms, but it can still be tricky to get the wording right.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to keep keywords and work around them. Sometimes authors will use their own specific keywords that they’ve coined for certain ideas, and those are important to maintain. You can change how those keywords are used to a certain extent, but keep those ideas in mind.

Step 4: Connect Those Ideas Together

Remember, you’re not adding any new ideas here. Your précis is meant to summarize the information from a text. Therefore, after you’ve extracted the essential information from your text and re-worded them into paragraph form, you can connect the points together with transition words to fill in the gaps.

To learn more about transition words and get some ideas for which ones you should use, check out our list of 200 transition words for essays.

Here are a couple things to remember for précis writing:

● Don’t copy and paste. While you’re not relying heavily on paraphrasing, you still can’t copy the author’s sentences directly.

● Remember your audience. Write your précis for an audience that hasn’t read the text or article. That means making sure there aren’t any gaps in your points, and your audience has a clear idea of the main ideas without having to connect the dots in their head.

● Always write in the third person, even if the original author writes from a first person perspective.

● Don’t include outside research. The précis is a summary of that specific text, and your job is exactly that. You’re not here to build on their arguments.

● Include a sentence that states the author’s full name and the title of the article. Your audience needs to know where the information came from, after all.

Female student sitting on the library floor reading abstracts for her precis

Step 5: Review and Edit Your Work

With any good assignment comes the important editing step, and précis writing is no different. You should never hand in the first draft of your work. At the very least, you should be running it through spell check software such as Grammarly, leaving it and coming back to it later with fresh eyes, and reading it out loud to see how it sounds.

If your précis is worth a significant portion of your grade, it won’t hurt you to hire a professional editing service to get an extra set of eyes on your work to make sure you’re on the right track. Experts will analyze your work and help you determine if you’ve included any non-essential information, articulated your point strongly, and haven’t made any spelling or grammar errors.

Writing a Rhetorical Précis

There is one type of précis assignment that we haven’t mentioned yet that does follow more specific conventions: the rhetorical précis.

In a rhetorical précis, your job is to summarize both what the author said and how they said it. You’ll need to be able to pull out the author’s essential arguments as well as the rhetorical techniques they’ve used to communicate those points. Remember, it’s still a précis that requires you to offer a brief, condensed summary, but this time you’re adding an extra step.

Here’s a brief guide by Lumen Learning on how to structure your rhetorical précis:

● Start by stating the author’s full name and the text, and introduce their main thesis.

● Offer a brief, concise summary of the essential arguments they’ve made to defend their thesis.

● Summarize the author’s method of delivery. In other words, what has the author said to deliver their arguments and convince their audience to agree? For this part, focus on their tone and language as this will indicate how they have chosen to relate to their audience.

For more information on what goes into a rhetorical analysis, check out our blog on this very topic! We walk you through everything you need to know to make sure your rhetorical analysis is as effective as possible.

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Still Don’t Know How to Write a Précis? Here Are Your Options

If you’ve read this entire blog and still aren’t sure how to write a précis, you still have plenty of options. In fact, some of those options can take the work off your plate entirely.

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