Composition a la Charlotte Mason: Writing a Precis


In this post and this one, we learned that Miss Mason required students in grades 7-9 to write a good precis.

Sometimes she called it a résumé , as in “Forms IV. & III. Read on Tuesdays some subject in “Literature,” or, on the news of the week, or, on some historical or allegorical subject, etc. Write on Thursdays a résumé.”

I had a high school teacher who required us to keep a notebook where we write a precis of everything we read, and we were required to read quite a lot.  She said that again and again, her students came back to her after they went to college, to tell her that this was one of the most valuable exercises they had done.  Looking back now, basically she had us writing written narrations every day in class, and she was right, it was one of the most valuable exercises I did in high school.

But I wanted to explain a precis better than that, so I searched through grammar and composition books from Miss Mason’s time period to see what they said about a precis.  I think that helps us understand the terms as Mason herself might have understood them.

I found several things, but I particularly liked this:

"A person who makes a precis of a letter, speech, 
sermon, essay, article, book, or part of a book, takes 
out and expresses shortly the essential thoughts and 

PRECIS-WRITING and the making of summaries is not 
a mere subject for competitive examinations, but an 
Exercise of the utmost possible mental and cultural 
value. It provides training in clear thinking, intel- 
lectual grasp and insight, orderly construction, and 
succinct expression.

So, how do they learn to do this?  They may already have the basics down.  They’ve been writing narrations for a few years now, and if they hate writing, they’ve gotten good at the succinct part.=)

But for those who haven’t, I noticed something interesting in common with most of the early 20th and late 19th century textbooks with exercises on precis writing I found.   Many of the first exercises given to students involved asking them to shorten assigned messages and recreate them for telegrams and for postcards.  Now, neither of those are in much use today, but something else that requires the same short form is. Yes, you could apply some of the same lessons to social media.
For instance:

 The Post-card. This form of correspondence 
also enforces the careful choice of essential words and 
phrases. It is allowable to leave out portions of 
sentences, provided always that the meaning is left 
perfectly clear, and that the message is courteous in 
spite of its brevity...

Whether or not courtesy is required on twitter or elsewhere on the internet is an open question. It largely depends on the context, source, and purpose- if you are a comedian or style yourself an opinion writer, not so much. If you are using social media as outreach for a business, yes (unless you’re Tor books. Sorry, inside joke, couldn’t resist).

At any rate, while social media gets a lot of sneering, it actually is, or at least can be,  an effective way to communicate and build an audience, and many businesses, non-profit organizations, politicians and others use it- and hire people to help them use it effectively. So we could legitimately use twitter for early exercises in summarizing a single idea, much as telegrams were used at the turn of the century.

To give your students some examples of how social media works- a bigger picture than just to exchange remarks about where you are eating and who you voted for on the Voice, Read this.

Next, explain to your student (if he doesn’t know) that Twitter enforces the careful choice of essential words and phrases. It is acceptable, and even customary, to leave out portions of sentences and to abbreviate, provided always that the meaning is left perfectly clear.

I cannot guarantee the G rating of these accounts, and there may be better examples, but consider these:
Comedy: Comedy- a parody account by the Queen of England. No, it’s not really by the Queen of England, silly. It’s parody. ‘We care, we’re here to listen. Obvious parody.’

Political and social commentary: Gabriel Malor, conservative Glenn Greenwald, liberal liberal Elianne Ramos, on immigration issues Tracy Lafway Clayton- buzzfeed writer, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, race issues and other things as well  Libertarian

Liberal Artsy: Books and Culture, Christian book review George Grant, Pastor, Parish Presbyterian Church; Founder, King’s Meadow Study Center, Franklin Classical School, Chalmers Fund, and New College Franklin. AmblesideOnline

Journalists: Jake Tapper Sharyl Attkisson

Businesses: Thai Kitchen Whole Foods Glenn Gilmore, on social media for marketing Movable Ink

Misc. Food, lifestyle

Those are just suggestions.   I’m not saying you should spend hours reading all of them- pick two or three examples and browse them.  You may find better examples, this list is in no way comprehensive or the best thing ever.  They are just twitter accounts that I think successfully use social media in the short form. The point of the exercise is not whether or not you agree with the positions. It’s to see how effectively they communicate to their chosen audience within the limitations of 140 characters.

You want to look for examples of effective tweets from various types of users (businesses, comedians, politicians, social commentary writers, bloggers, etc),

Read a few tweets, practice writing a few.  Pick a topic- a book, a historical event, a current event, and create a ‘tweet’ about it- it doesn’t have to be for publication.  The point is practice in being extremely succinct, yet still informative and interesting.  Once in a while have your student write his narration of a book or reading, and then attempt to sum it up as thought it were being posted on twitter.  The goals are mainly wit and clarity.

There are, of course, several other kinds of social media, and there will be others by the time your students are out in the world.  I’m a dinosaur, so I have no suggestions for those, but that does not mean you should ignore them.

Look at the use of various forms of social media by people who are good at it, practice writing some pieces in that particular form.  And keep in mind that this early 19th century advice on writing postcards applies tenfold to all social media:

"Seeing that a message on a post-card is, in a sense, 
public property, consider the propriety of using 
a post-card in each of the following situations. 
Wien you think it appropriate, write the 
necessary message..."

Except unlike postcards, social media is forever.

After your student has done this a few times, start working on something like a bullet journal, showing him how to summarize main points in chronological order, without bogging down in details- see some of the above texts for ideas.


Series at a glance- see the linked TOC for the entire series of Grammar and Composition/Language Arts the CM way posts

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