How to Write a Précis

A précis (pronounced “prā – sē”) is a short summary of a book or short story. Usually it is one-sixth the length of the original story. That is, it should have one page for every six pages in the original book or story. In one sense a précis is similar to a book report — the student recounts the basic narrative of the story or the basic arguments of the paper.

The précis is valuable because it forces the student to express a story or a thesis in his or her own words. This the level of comprehension. Being to able to restate something using one’s own words indicates an understanding of the original story or paper. Teachers therefore use a précis to determine whether a student understands what has been read.

The précis also provides the student with a concise review of the material read. It is by definition a summary and often there is not enough time to study the original story or paper; a précis gives the student material to study to refresh his or her memory about the original text read.

Here are some things to consider when reading a text and then writing a précis:

  • Take notes while reading, especially when reading nonfiction. The topic sentences of nonfiction articles can be collected and will form the skeleton of the précis.
  • When reading fiction, look for the plot structure: exposition, inciting moment, crisis, moment of final suspense, and denouement. These events constitute a précis of a story.
  • Identify the conflict(s) in the story. Include only those things which develop and/or resolve the conflict.
  • Avoid interjecting personal opinions. The purpose of a précis is to summarize another person’s story or argument, not to tell about your “favorite part” of the story! (A précis is not the same thing as a “response” paper.)
  • Do not use any examples not used in the original paper; do not add support or question the author’s arguments
  • The précis is meant to be a summary; however, make sure the key points of the paper or the important events in the story are included and clearly explained (without changing the intent of the original paper or story).
  • The précis is meant to a summary; therefore keep it simple and short.

Writing a précis is an excellent study skill. It forces the reader to wrestle with the story or the argument and read for comprehension. It gives the reader material to review later in preparation for tests. It also aids in the preparation of later papers in response to the original text. (Plus, it makes a great name for a classroom newsletter and companion website!)

For more writing tips on this website, see “How to Format a Paper.”