The What and How of a Precis

how to write a precis thecommonroom

As mentioned previously, one of the writing assignments Miss Mason taught her students was precis writing. Of the two best English courses I have ever had in high school, for one of them the teacher required at least a weekly precis on something we had read in class. She said that again and again, students returned to her and said it was the most helpful thing they’d learned in preparation for college, and I found this to be true as well. I don’t know or care if it is still taught in public schools, but if not, it should be, and every homeschool should include it. The knack of summarizing material with just the facts, removing personal point of view, selecting key points, eliminating irrelevant material, and putting it in order is a useful tool for anybody who intends to read and think about what he’s read, to organize his thoughts, to consider the points of a news article or a debate.

This is a long post, not a precis at all. I hope, nonetheless, it will be useful to any parent who wishes to each his children to write a precis but isn’t sure how. When I want to learn enough about something new to reach a basic understanding of it, I read several different sources, usually ones for beginners. As I read, though some of it is repetitious, the different ways different authors have of explaining things helps me make sense of the topic. So that’s what I’ve done here- collected several likely explanations of Precis writing from various public domain texts. The simplest one, written for the youngest students, is the last. My favourite one for the charm of the writing style and clarity of ideas, is the second to last- the one I didn’t transcribe, but just shared screen shots of the pages.

I did edit some here and there for clarity, and I do not necessarily make a note of those alterations.  Some will be obvious (if a 1900 text appears to mention twitter, or blogging, it’s a good indication that it’s been annotated), others not so much. All of them can be found on google.books or if you wish to visit the originals or see the exercises as well.

how to write a precis thecommonroom



What is a précis (pronounced pray-see)?

The précis is a condensation of a book, essay, or lecture, and aims to present the given subject matter as justly and fully as possible in limited space. Its practical value lies in the clearness of its outline and the saving of time for its readers. It has also a great disciplinary value as training for the scholar who undertakes it. It is worth taking the time to practice précis writing until you feel able to transmit facts to another at least as accurately as those facts came to you.

Adapted from

    Facts, Thought, and Imagination: A Book on Writing

By Henry Seidel Canby, Frederick Erastus Pierce, Willard Higley Durham, published in 1917

They offer this guide to writing a précis:

I. What a précis is:
A. A précis is a condensed essay giving in logical sequence the main thoughts or facts of the original author (or authors. A precis may represent the condensed information gathered from a body of correspondence,  the letters of various writers), freed from all nonessential matter.

II. What a précis is not:
A. The précis is not a paragraph outline of the original article. Each main heading of the printed essay will usually cover several paragraphs; a paragraph outline ignores the distinction between the main headings and their minor subdivisions, ignores the very distinction which gives the précis value. Also, whole paragraphs may be introduced in the original article merely to win over a hostile reader or interest an apathetic one, and consequently should be omitted from the précis.
B. Although the construction of an outline is a preparatory step, the final version of the précis is not to be written in any kind of outline form.
C. The précis should contain no comment, criticism, or thought not found in the original.

III. Steps in making a précis:
A. The central thought of the whole essay should be summarized in a sentence. It is well to write that sentence at the head of the précis.

B. The main divisions of the essay, that is, the main headings under which the author thought out the subject, should be distinguished from each other; and the basic thought of each division summarized in a sentence.

C. These sentences should be arranged as an outline in the most coherent order, which will often, but not necessarily or always, be that of the printed essay.

D. From the outline thus formed, a condensed essay should be written, in which each sentence of the outline is developed into a paragraph. The thought development underlying the paragraph should follow the thought development of the original essay. Examples and other illustrative material should be used only when indispensable, and when used, should be reproduced from the original with the most rigid accuracy.

E. All matter brought in for purposes of proof or illustration must be placed under the topic which its author intended it to prove or illustrate. Its presence under any other heading condemns the precis as inaccurate and unintelligent.

F. Space should be apportioned according to the importance apparently attached to the different points by the original writer. This will usually, but not necessarily or always, mean that space will be apportioned as in the printed article.


IV.   The precis and the magazine article

A. If the order of topics and proportionate space allotted to topics are not the same in a magazine article and a precis based on it ,that fact does not necessarily mean that either is bad. The precis is written for readers concerned only with the logical development of thought or the bare statement of facts. Magazine articles are written to interest and to amuse, as well as to instruct; they may require an informal order or indirect presentation to hold the reader’s attention or lull his prejudice.

how to write a precis thecommonroom

the following comes from  A Progressive Course of Précis Writing
By Frederick Eden Robeson, published by Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1913

GENERAL EXPLANATION OF PRECIS WRITING:  A Precis, in the strict sense of the term, means a summary of some document or documents, but this definition is insufficient as an explanation of what is now commonly required of any one who is instructed to draw up a precis. A document or series of documents is given the writer, and he is expected to write, in the form of a consecutive narrative,  an abbreviated account of what occurred as shown by the document or documents before him. The narrative, while including all that is important with regard to the matter in hand, must rigidly exclude all that is unimportant.

The object of the precis is to present to any one who has not time to read the original document or documents the leading features of what is there described, and to present them in a readable form and as concisely as is compatible with clearness. The writer of a precis should constantly put himself in the position of a person who has not seen the original documents, and yet wishes to have a clear knowledge of all that is essential in them. He must try to imagine what such a person would need to know and what would be useless to him. So we arrive at the three main requirements of a precis, which are printed above in thick type, the rules given on pp 10 13 are merely aids towards carrying these out.  It is not easy to fulfil these requirements.

The attempt to include nothing but the important, and to express this concisely, must not be allowed to obscure the natural sequence of events and to result in a jerky agglomeration of items of information.

Without being longwinded, the narrative must be continuous; it must, so to speak,  read like a story; the connecting link between one event and another must be obvious.  One of the great difficulties of precis writing is the combination of such a clear consecutive statement with terseness of expression.


I. Heading.  Write at the top the words ‘Precis of,’ and below them write the title as given you…

II Beginning. The opening sentence or sentences should state the main subject, and, as a rule, the date. These particulars will generally be found in the first letter or document.

III. Observe the dates of the various documents and describe circumstances in their logical order.

Do not proceed letter by letter; the documents are not necessarily arranged in chronological order, and the chronological order is not always the best order. Notice specially a that an enclosure or attachment is likely to be of earlier date than the covering letter which accompanies it b. that sometimes the first communication of an event is telegraphic (or a tweet of FB post) and later on you find an email, blog post, or letter of the same date as the telegram/tweet/fb post, dealing,  of course, more fully with the same event.

IV. Sometimes the opening and final paragraphs of a communication are merely stage setting.  The important information maybe in the body of an email or post, even possibly toward the end.

V. Sometimes two or more subjects more or less distinct are discussed in the same communication.  For a precis, keep separate subjects in separate paragraphs,  and start with a new paragraph when you enter on a new topic.  It will help you if when reading the correspondence, you mark passages dealing with one subject A,  those dealing with a second B, and so on.

VI Omit matters that have no important bearing on the leading topic.

(a).  Some letters merely acknowledge the receipt of dispatches.

(b)  A date being given in your opening sentence, the precise dates of subsequent events may be unimportant, though they are not necessarily so.

(c) Details may be merely picturesque,  eg do not write, “The motor was brought round to the front door Mr X said good bye and was soon out of sight,” but say “Mr X. went away” or “Mr. X started.”

In other cases a number of details, not sufficiently important for individual mention, require to be summed up in a single phrase or sentence.

(d) A topic mentioned only once can usually be disregarded; in itself, it may be important,  but it may be unimportant in its relation to the main subject of the precis.

VII. Use the past tense and the third person . Do not write “Mr. X said to Mr. Z, ‘I will inform you if the disturbances recur,’ but “Mr. X promised to inform Mr. Z if the disturbances recurred.

VIII.  Be concise, simple, and direct. Do not repeat yourself.

(a) The phrase “He wrote a dispatch in which he gave the Foreign Secretary information” is not concise. Say “He informed the Foreign Secretary.”

(b) A metaphorical expression such as “The witness drew the long bow” is not simple. If it is necessary to mention the matter at all say quite plainly “The witness exaggerated.” But usually a remark of this sort is better left out altogether, see Rule X.

(c) “China turned to England in the hope of procuring her good offices in bringing about a settlement of these difficulties” is an indirect and roundabout way of saying “China requested the help of England in the settlement of these difficulties.” Diplomatic language is apt to be verbose.

(d) In the documents presented to you, one document may repeat information given in another.

IX. Use your own words as a rule.

A Precis Exercise is commonly set as an exercise in English Composition,  and whether so designated or not its composition must always be an important factor in determining its value. But it fails of its purpose as a Composition test when it is largely a collection of phrases picked out from the documents treated. Moreover, it commonly happens that when we have to summarize a number of facts in a single statement,  there is no clause in the text that does this in a sufficiently comprehensive manner. The Civil Service Commissioners say “the language of the original may sometimes be suitable for your purpose but it is more likely to be unsuitable.” (at least, that was the case in 1913)

X.  The information must be definite. Though you are concise, you must not be vague. Expressions like “The political situation,”” an alarming state of affairs,” “financial complications,” contain no definite information whatever.

XL. Do not abbreviate words. Write ‘on the 4th, March 1911,  not 4/3/1911, nor March 4, 1911.  British South Africa, not BSA nor British S. Africa

XII. Do not call the same person or place by different names, eg, do not at one moment say ‘The Secretary of State for the Colonies,’ at another ‘The Colonial Secretary,’ at another ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.

XIII. As a general rule, prefer official names to personal names,  eg say “The Colonial Secretary,” rather than “Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.” For the purposes of a precis, the personal name is frequently,  though not always,  quite unimportant.  If communications are made to him/her or orders given by him/her in virtue of his being Commander of the Forces and not in virtue of his being John or Jane Smith, use the title.   Even if, over the course of the correspondence, the position is held by two different people, it is not usually necessary to mention it in a precis.  An exception, however, might have to be made to this rule if in the example given, one person’s orders were reversed or modified by a successor.  This rule does not mean that personal names are never to be given.   In writing a precis of Minutes of Evidence,  witnesses must usually be mentioned by name.  In a precis of a Correspondence, personal names are sometimes required,  but such cases are not frequent.

XIV It is usually unnecessary to name the medium of correspondence… (this rule had to do with an official precis made in the line of a government duty, so I didn’t bother to transcribe it)

XV. Give no explanatory notes and make no comments of your own.  A precis is not an essay. Do not even add an epithet,  eg do not speak of ‘This deplorable incident,’ or ‘An interesting communication.  The communication may be highly interesting,  and the incident the most deplorable that has occurred for a century,  but it is not your business to say so.  Even if the words deplorable and interesting appeared in the original they would probably be better left out as being merely ornamental epithets.

XVI  Anything in the shape of an explanatory note almost certainly means that you are disobeying one or more of these rules… A precis must be a consecutive narrative.

When given material upon which you are to base a precis:


1. Glance rapidly through the whole of the exercise and get some idea of its general drift.

2. Read again, this time more carefully; make short notes on paper, or preferably, mark what seems important, and, if they help you, add brief marginal notes.

3. Consider how best to arrange what you have marked.

4. Write, in your own words, a narrative without any attempt at condensation.

5. Rewrite your narrative, putting it as briefly as is compatible with clearness and good English, and omitting any unessential details that you may have included in your first copy.

NB. After some practice, you should be able to dispense with 4 and to proceed direct from 3 to 5, and you should aim at learning to do this.

6. Read through what you have written and correct any errors in spelling punctuation.

Never neglect 6.

how to write a precis thecommonroomPrécis and Précis Writing
By Arthur William Ready 1901

Précis and Précis Writing 1

Précis and Précis Writing2


Précis and Précis Writing 4

Précis and Précis Writing 5


Précis and Précis Writing 6

Précis and Précis Writing 7

Précis and Précis Writing 8

Précis and Précis Writing 9

Précis and Précis Writing 10

I think it was the analogy of the river, and the reference to wickets that charmed me most.



how to write a precis thecommonroomPrécis writing for beginners
by Pocock, Guy Noel, 1880-1955

A precis is the essence of a longer story of any kind. You take your story and ‘boil it down,’ so as to get rid of all the parts that do not really matter; you then collect what is left, and put these points together in a short concise ‘summary.’ But the result must not be a Mist’ of important points, or a series of ‘jottings.’ It must be the same story told clearly and readably, in a very much condensed form.
For instance, you may have to make a precis of a long pile of letters dealing with some particular subject; or perhaps the account of a trial; or a long report written by one individual. It doesn’t matter what the longer ‘story’ is. What you have to do is to read it through, extract all the parts that matter, and put them down in readable form.
How to tackle a Precis
All precis, whether easy or difficult, should be tackled in the same way. First read the whole thing through very carefully without writing any notes or underlining any passages.
All depends on this first reading. For if you once get into the way of writing your precis or even making notes *as you go along,’ you will never grasp the subject as a whole. And the result will be that your precis will lack balance. Either you will write too much about the first half and skimp the rest, or you will write a great deal about the picturesque points that appeal to you, and leave out things that really matter.
When you have read it carefully through, and got the whole story in your mind, run through it quickly a second time marking the passages you mean to use. For the purposes of this book the best plan will be to underline in pencil those passages which will have to be used with little alteration, and to put a wavy line against those which cannot be left out altogether, but must be greatly condensed.
Last, work up all the marked passages into a short continuous ‘story.’
Rule I. — Start your Precis with a title.
This title must not be of the imaginative kind that would suit a story, such as ‘A Misunderstanding,’ or ‘The Adventures of a Red Cross Man.’ It must be a clear and concise statement of what the precis is about. Thus: “Precis of the correspondence between the British Government and Dr. Wilson, President of the United States, concerning contraband of war “. And if dates are given you should add, “between Feb. 18, 1915, and Oct., 1916”.
Rule II. — Every Precis must be written in the form of REPORTED SPEECH.
This rule is so important that it is impossible to write a precis till it is thoroughly understood. It will be necessary to explain what is meant by ‘reported speech ,’ and to practise a few examples.
Suppose you say to somebody, “I can’t be bothered, as I am busy writing a precis!” you are using a form which is called Direct speech. And suppose the person you were addressing goes away and says to somebody else, “So-and-so said he couldn’t be bothered, as he was busy writing a precis,” he is reporting what you said. In other words, he has turned your ‘direct speech ‘into ‘reported speech .’ This rule is so important that it is impossible to write a precis till it is thoroughly understood. It will be necessary to explain what is meant by ‘reported speech ,’ and to practise a few examples.
Suppose you say to somebody, “I can’t be bothered, as I am busy writing a precis!” you are using a form which is called Direct speech. And suppose the person you were addressing goes away and says to somebody else, “So-and-so said he couldn’t be bothered, as he was busy writing a precis,” he is reporting what you said. In other words, he has turned your ‘direct speech’ into ‘reported speech.’
Notice what has happened. You are no longer the person speaking, but the person spoken about: therefore ‘I’ becomes ‘he.’ Also you are no longer speaking: what you said is now ‘in the past’; therefore ‘can’t’ becomes ‘could not’ and ‘am’ becomes ‘was.’
This is quite straightforward. The difficulty arises when you are dealing with words that imply future time. Without going into the syntax, one may just explain that in Reported speech the ‘future’ must be referred back to the time at which the Direct statement was spoken. Thus: “I will write when I get home,” becomes “He said that he would write when he got home.”
Thus for the purposes of simple precis writing the following rules must be observed: —
(a) Never use the First or Second persons: always the Third.
(d) Never use the Present tense: always the Past.
(c) Never use the Future tense: always refer it back to the past. Even a verb such as ‘must,’ which usually implies the future, should be changed to ‘would have to,’ or some such phrase.
(d) Possessive adjectives, my, your, our, must be changed to the Third person.
(e) Adverbs and adverbial phrases must be changed in the same way. ‘Now’ becomes ‘then’; ‘at the present time’ becomes ‘at that time’; ‘here’ becomes ‘there ,’ and so on.
Take one more example. You know this familiar quotation: “I will arise and go to my Father, and say unto Him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son.'”
Now suppose you were telling the story of the Prodigal Son to a Japanese gentleman, or somebody who had not heard it before, and you wished to keep pretty close to the original, you might put it in this way: “The prodigal son then determined that he would arise and go to his Father, and confess that he had sinned before Him and against Heaven, and was no more worthy to be called His son.”

vintage border

Keep in mind, this sort of study is for older children who have already been giving good narrations for several years. After giving an account of narration in School Education Mason adds:

“But this is only one way to use books; others are to enumerate the statements in a given chapter, to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series, to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause, to discern character–and perceive how character and circumstance interact . . . The teacher’s part is, among other things, to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupil’s mental activity . . . Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied. These few hints by no means cover the disciplinary uses of a good school book.”

More on what Miss Mason had to say about language arts.

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