Category Archives: rhetorical précis

What is a rhetorical précis?

A précis is a highly structured summary of a text, focusing on the text’s argument and presentation.  It is a type of academic writing presenting factual information only, without opinions of the précis writer.

One way of organizing a précis is to write a four-sentence summary:

The opening sentence names the text, its author, genre and publication date followed by a clause naming the thesis of the work.

The second sentence explains how the author develops the thesis, with information usually presented in the same order as in the original text.

The third sentence explains why the text was written, often followed by an “in order to” phrase.

The fourth sentence either describes the intended audience or the tone of the text.

Let’s look at a précis I wrote about the Declaration of Independence:

In the Declaration of Independence (July 1776), Thomas Jefferson argues that because King George III usurped the liberties of British citizens in the North American colonies, those citizens were declaring their independence from Britain.  Jefferson divides the Declaration into four parts:  the preamble, a short paragraph explaining that the world has a right to know why the colonies are separating; second, the most quoted part, the philosophical justification for the separation; third, the longest section, the list of grievances against King George III; and fourth, another short paragraph declaring independence.  Jefferson’s purpose was to present a logical and legally sound justification for the separation in order to gain the support of all 13 colonies and of potential international allies.  The author’s tone is formal as befits the seriousness of the purpose.

Why are students asked to write a précis?  A précis demands summarizing, analyzing and culling a text into a concise format, eliminating opinion.  Writing a good précis proves whether a student understands a text and whether a student can write.