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.
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