A précis is a kind of academic summary. Specifically, it’s a tightly focused summary of an argument expressed by a piece of academic writing, not necessarily a summary of the piece of writing that expresses the argument.
The difference is important. An argument is the attempted demonstration of a claim (a thesis, or “the point,” or the answer to a question) via a structure of reasoning. It is this structure, the construction of the argument that a précis tries to show concisely and clearly. If this is best done by rearranging the material or by spending proportionally less time on a certain point than the author does, then that’s what you should do. Don’t assume that you should write one sentence summarizing each paragraph in the original work, in the same sequence—or anything like that. Your précis will not be a narrative of what the author said first, then next, then next, etc.; it will be a display of the article’s argumentative skeleton.
How Do I Write a Précis?
Writing a précis requires you to actively analyze the target text, and a good précis will reflect this involvement by focusing effectively on what’s really important in the argument. Your précis should make the following clear:
- the nature of the evidence or reasoning that the author invokes
- the key steps in that reasoning
- how those steps move the author toward his or her conclusion
A précis should be brief. In fact, one of the challenges of writing a précis is finding ways to write as concisely as possible without oversimplifying the argument you are summarizing.
The purpose of the précis itself is to develop a critical summary and not a critical review. In other words, you’re not giving your opinion of the argument. Sometimes, though, a précis will lead into some sort of further comment on the value and persuasiveness of the author’s argument. Depending on the specific assignment you are asked to fulfill, a précis can become the starting point for an evaluation of the original argument or even a counter-argument in response to it.
What about Format and Length?
Format the précis like an academic essay. The length will vary depending on the assignment. However, a précis is always a brief piece of writing compared to the original text. For example, a précis of a 20-page published article might be between two and three double-spaced pages.