The value of Précis-writing as an exercise in accurate expression cannot be overestimated. It is a useful accomplishment to be able to make a quick, readable summary of a passage, containing all important points, but carefully omitting all stuff of subsidiary nature. It is often necessary to be able to write briefly the substance of something heard or read. In order to make a good summary, one must know not merely the meanings of the words in the given passage, but the ideas which the words are intended to convey. In writing a précis, one is required to make a selection of the leading thoughts and to express them in one’s own words. In this way, one can learn the art of précis-writing.
A précis is a summary and précis-writing means summarising. Précis-writing is an exercise in compression. A précis is the gist or main theme of a passage expressed in the fewest words possible. It should be lucid, succinct and complete (i.e., including all important points) so that one may be able to grasp the main ideas and the general effect of the passage summarized. In fact, a précis is just a straightforward statement of the bare facts without unnecessary trappings. It has become a common practice with us to use, both in speech and writing, as many words as possible, although we may be feeling all the while that a smaller number of words could be sufficient to convey the precise meanings. For example, if one remarks, “She is always recklessly spending more money than she can afford,” we are bound to feel that the speaker has used more words than are required, as the whole sense can be expressed by saying: “She is extravagant”.
A clause, too, may often be condensed into a phrase: Thus “When the first rays of the sun were beginning to dispel the darkness” is equivalent to “at dawn”. Even a phrase may be expressed in fewer words, perhaps in one word: “Born with a silver spoon in his mouth” is the same as “born rich”. Similarly, a complex or compound sentence can often be condensed by the conversion of its two clauses into one: “I failed the BA examination, and for that reason I was obliged to discontinue my studies,” becomes: “having failed the BA examination, I could not study further”.
Thus, we see that précis is merely a short way of expression. When a person writes, “I suffer from an inability to sacrifice my interests for the sake of others,” he is simply using a more polished way of stating, “I am selfish,” which may be called a précis of his statement.
The writing of a good précis involves three distinct and difficult exercises of the mind:
(1) Full and clear comprehension, by reading, of every sentence in the given passage.
(2) Accurate comprehension of the main theme or the central idea, and the subsidiary ideas and details in their true proportion.
(3) A faithful reproduction of those ideas on a smaller scale, in concise but natural and simple English.
First read the passage carefully to get a general idea of its meanings. Preferably, read it carefully twice or thrice to obtain a thorough grasp of its exact meanings. Reading will make you clear about. (1) Its subject or theme; and (2) what is said about that subject. Usually, you are required to supply a title for your précis. While reading the original passage, think of some word, phrase or short sentence that will briefly sum up the subject of the passage. Sometimes this is supplied by what we may call a key sentence that may be found either at the beginning or at the end of the passage.
Having read the passage twice or thrice, you should decide what parts of the passage are essential and what parts are comparatively less important and so can be omitted without any loss. This process of selection is very important. Do not select in a haphazard or mechanical way. One way is to underline most important sentences and phrases in the original. This will be possible only if you have a clear and correct idea of the passage. Jot down your conclusion in brief notes, then write down the title, the subject and the essential details. This is a kind of first draft of the précis. Then insert the lines between the ideas to make a readable first draft. It is not likely that your first attempt will be a complete success. The draft will probably be longer than is required. In this case, read the first draft again and delete certain words the absence of which will not make much difference. If your first draft is too short, insert into it certain phrases which formally you did not include but they seem to be important. (Normally a précis is one-third of the original passage).
The following points must be kept in mind:
(1) Write down, in order, the important points in the passage.
(2) Then write out a short passage, having a general idea of the whole extract in your mind, and the framework you have drawn up before you. Write as simply, clearly, briefly and interestingly as you can. See that the parts of your writing bear the same balance and proportion in relation to one another, as the parts of the original passage do.
(3) Remember that the object of a précis is to give a true summary of the original passage. Add to your précis nothing which is not in the original passage, and omit nothing which is important.
(4) It will usually be advised to follow the order of thoughts as given in the original passage. But, if you synthesize two or more sentences in one sentence, the thoughts in your sentence may have any order.
(5) Remember that the length of your précis should be about one-third of the original passage, if not prescribed in the question. In that case, you have to follow the instructions.
(6) The précis must be a connected whole. It may be divided into sections or paragraphs, according to changes in the subject-matter. These must not appear as separate points but must be joined together to read continuously. Don’t write too small paragraphs, a paragraph should be of reasonable length.
(7) Lastly, remember that if faithful reproduction is one cardinal virtue of a summary, conciseness is another. There is no room in a précis for colloquialisms, rhetorical expressions, examples, repetitions, explanations and amplifications. All redundancies of expression must be rigorously pruned, every sentence must carry its full weight — but with the minimum expenditure of words.
(8) The tense(s) in the given passage must be retained. You must not change the original tense(s).