What Is a Précis and How Do I Write One?

What exactly is a Précis?

A précis is a short, unambiguous summary of a source, such as a book, a lecture, or a series of books.

The core concepts of the original work or works are distilled in a précis. Its goal is to transmit the thesis, main arguments, and conclusions of the original works to the reader of the précis, giving them an overall feel or overview of the original work(s). Assume you’re writing the summary for a reader who is interested in the subject but unfamiliar with the work in issue. Consider this: if someone read your précis, would they catch the gist of what the work is about? This year’s most concise will need you to synthesize many readings. I’ll make it very obvious which works you should include. In rare situations, I may request that you include the lectures in your summary.


Here’s a very short example of what you’ll write, in this case not summarizing a historical work but two well-known films. I pick this example because I think that even if you haven’t seen the movie, you have a general idea of what it’s about.

Star Wars (written and directed by George Lucas, 1977) is set in “a galaxy far, far away,” as the director defines it. It tells the tale of Luke Skywalker, a youthful hero who joins a revolt against the terrible Galactic Empire. Luke works with his robot friends and the space pirate Han Solo to rescue the rebellion’s commander, Princess Leia, from the clutches of the Empire’s enforcer, the ruthless Darth Vader, with the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a powerful wizard (or “Jedi Knight” in the film’s terminology). Luke, finding that he, too, possesses the power of the Jedi Knights, destroys the Empire’s most powerful space station, the Death Star, and rescues the galaxy in the final minutes of the film. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irving Kirshner) continues the saga, with Darth Vader on the hunt for the rebels. While Luke is learning the ways of the Jedi from Yoda, Han Solo and Princess Leia find themselves in Vader’s clutches. Luke, vanquished in a climactic battle with Vader, discovers he is Vader’s son. The Princess saves Luke this time, but Han Solo is handed over to the wicked bounty hunter Boba Fett, setting the stage for a sequel. The purpose of a précis is to give readers who are unfamiliar with the original story a concise overview of what the original source is about. Again, this is only an example; you will not be writing about a movie; instead, you will be writing about a historical work. Finally, at the end of the overview, you should add a little comments or analysis of your own. This could be an attempt to connect the materials to the course’s main theme or earlier readings, for example. For example, in the movie summary above, I might have written at the end:

Star Wars (as the series became known) is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, with influences ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Star Trek to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai adventures. It was the first in a long line of blockbuster pictures that revolutionized the movie going experience.

Some Points to Consider When Writing a Précis

Write in your own words, simply and plainly. You won’t need to quote straight from the source in most circumstances. Again, attempt to simplify the most significant aspects of the readings so that the reader has a clear understanding of what they are about. Ask yourself as you write: Would someone reading this précis be able to tell me what the work is about based just on my précis? Finally, while the précis is a short writing task, try to complete two drafts and a quick review before submitting.

Format, Length, and Citation

Your synopsis should be about two pages long (please use a standard 12 pt. font.) This will probably be around 600-700 words at most. Longer summaries ignore the point of the assignment, while significantly shorter summaries are unlikely to do the source material justice. In general, you will not quote directly from sources unless it is absolutely required for illustrative purposes; nevertheless, if you do, you must include the page number and the author’s last name in parentheses after the quotation. Turnitin.com will be used to check all summaries. Plagiarism will result in a zero grade and a course failure.

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