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Precis

by Barnhill, David L last modified Sep 22, 2010 11:38 AM

A precis is a brief summary of a larger work. The term "abstract" has the same meaning, but I prefer the term precis because of its relation to the word "precise," and because of the way the word is pronounced: "pray-see." A precis is a precise condensation of the basic thesis and major points of a paper; it tells the reader the gist of what has been said. In other words, a precis answers the question: "what's this paper saying?"

Precis are difficult to write if you are not used to doing them because they require a real exactness in your understanding of what is being said. But their difficulty is an indication of their importance. If you are writing a paper, you need to be able to restate in one paragraph exactly what you are trying to say in the paper. If you can't, you don't have a sure handle on what you are thinking and writing. The same is true of an article you are reading: if you can't restate the article's thesis and major points in one efficient and coherent paragraph, you don't understand that article. A precis, then, is a discipline, a way of training your mind. Like most disciplines, it is difficult and even frustrating at the beginning, but with time it becomes easier and the results more significant.

How do you write a precis?

1. First, speak in direct, assertive language. You are not arguing your points or explaining them, just stating them in simple declarative statement. Don't refer to the author ("Snyder said that..."), just state directly what the author said.

2. Second, identify the overall thesis of the paper, the different sections of the paper, and the major points in each section. This involves distinguish ing secondary information from primary points.

Always ask yourself two questions: (1) Is this a major point of the paper, one that is directly related to the main thesis? (2) How do I state the point in the most direct and simple way?

Keep in mind the goal: communicating to the reader (and yourself) the main thesis and the major points in the most succinct form.

What I look for in a great precis

1. Is is a correct summary of the key sections and points?

2. Is it comprehensive, touching on all the key sections and points?

3. Is it efficient, saying a lot in a brief way?

4. Is the presentation clear to the reader?

5. Is the writing, grammar, spelling, etc., correct?

Details

Type, double space, one-inch margins. At the top, put your name, the title of the essay, and the date.

EXAMPLES OF PRECIS FOR ESSAYS IN ES 243 "INTRODUCTION TO NATURE WRITING"

David Barnhill, “Surveying the Landscape”

precis by Nicole Helminiak

There are many different ways of answering what nature writing is and what different approaches we can take. There are two taxonomies that are useful, one by Thomas J. Lyon and another by Patrick D. Murphy. Taxonomy is a categorization that locates texts into different types of nature writing, which serves several functions (identifies and highlights diversity within this genre, tells us something of the qualities of nature writing, provide a vocabulary for analyzing nature, and allows us to compare texts). In Lyon ’s nature writing, there are three main dimensions: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of nature, moving from the more objective to the more experiential to the more abstract and speculative. This taxonomy of nature writing is not as tidy as this classification might suggest, but it has admirable qualities of logic and simplicity and also succeeds in using the three main dimensions of nature writing that Lyon highlights. Murphy’s taxonomy suggests a broader category of nature-oriented literature that includes Lyon ’s nature writing as well as much more. Murphy’s taxonomy is the emphasis on environmentalism (environmental writing, and environmental literature), which makes it structured by either writing and literature or nature and environmental. This taxonomy is not an alternative to Lyon ’s taxonomy, but more of an expansion. These taxonomies map the rich diversity of nature-oriented literature by locating individual works in clearly differentiated categories, which can also be a disadvantage. An alternative way to the taxonomy approach is the ecosystem scheme. An ecosystem is a community together with its environment, functioning as a unit. In the ecosystem approach, the literary work (rather than the abstract categories) takes center stage. There are seven elements in the ecosystem approach: natural history, accounts of personal experience in nature, philosophy of nature, ecological psychology, social experience of nature, ecosocial politics, and spirituality. The first three elements are similar to the three dimensions in Lyon ’s taxonomy. Ecological psychology concerns not just nature, but our consciousness of nature. The social experience is the social context of our experience of nature and the significance of society and culture in our relationship to nature and also that we don’t experience nature solely in terms of the present. The political dimension is related to Murphy’s associates with environmental literature, but unlike Murphy’s idea, it does not follow his strong distinctions between nature writing and environmental writing. To pursue an in-depth analysis of ecosocial ideals, there are three different aspects that are needed: bearing witness, analysis, and activism. The spiritual dimension concerns conceptions of nature's sacredness, religious emotions such as awe and humility, and states of mind such as mystical awareness of the earth.

David Barnhill, "The Spiritual Dimension of Nature Writing"
Precis by Peter Havlik

The range of sources nature writing draws from is incredibly vast. Anarchism, animism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity all speak in varying degrees through nature writers. There are three dominant ways that nature writers use to approach the question of “what is nature?” which has become a difficult question to answer. The first is extra-ordinary. In this view nature is separate form the conventional lives we lead and should be encountered on its own terms. Another belief details an intimate connection with nature. This entails a deep sense of place and identification with the land base that directly supports oneself. The third dominant answer is that everything is sacred and there is an unlimited value in every place. All three approaches to the question are beneficial to understand our relationship to nature and have even been combined in many cases. Nature has also been depicted as sacred and can be analyzed using the same categories. The relationship between nature and the divine is also a key question. Many people view the natural world as being sacred or divine, although sometimes there is a tension between nature as sacred in itself or as simply the product of the divine. Nature writers also depict nature in different ways. Inter-relatedness is the most common theme depicting nature. Another depiction of nature is the vastness ascribed to it. The timelessness of nature is also presented in many works. Awareness of nature is an additional area focused on by nature writers. The social and political aspects are also discussed, with the term social spirituality useful in understanding the significance of family, community and culture to nature and the sacred. Nature writing draws from an extremely wide variety of influences. All of these approaches are beneficial to nature writing and nature in many ways. The power of nature writing lies with-in its range of incredibly vast influences which allow it to stand against the destruction of the earth.

 

AN EXAMPLE OF AN EFFECTIVE PRECIS OF A STUDENT PAPER ( ON THE FILM RASHOMON)

The way in which a film is lighted can be crucial to an audience's perception of the concepts and characters. In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa is particularly conscious of the effects of light as it strikes his characters. Some critics and viewers, particularly Keiko McDonald, see light in the film as expressing reason and good, and darkness as representing impulse and evil. A careful examination of the film's lighting proves this to be an overly simplistic and, at times, inaccurate assessment. The concept of certainty can be expanded upon to help illuminate the way in which light works in the film. Certainty deals with each character's clarity of thought, purity of intent, and decisiveness. Throughout the film, and particularly the scenes in the police station, differing degrees of light show differing degrees of certainty. Each character who gives testimony can be judged in terms of his certainty based upon the way in which the light falls upon him in this scene. Kurosawa has not intended to make any moral judgments about the characters in this film. He wishes us to come to the realization that reality is a subjective concept that can only be understood in context. For this reason it is invalid to discuss any aspect of the film, including the juxtaposition of light and darkness, in terms of good and evil.

>> Note how this precis efficiently summarizes the specific points made in the paper, and tells the reader what the paper has actually said.

AN EXAMPLE OF AN INEFFECTIVE PRECIS OF THE SAME PAPER:

In this paper I talk about Kurosawa's use of light in the movie Rashomon and how that effects the meaning of the film. I criticize McDonald's interpretation and present a new perspective on the significance of light in the overall meaning of the film. I relate the use of light to the important theme of the subjectivity of truth.

>> Note how this attempt at a precis does not give actual points made. Instead, it merely states the general topics the writer will talk about. As a result it does not communicate to the reader what the paper actually says. A precis like this suggests that the author of the paper isn't really clear about the points s/he has made.

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by Barnhill, David L last modified Sep 22, 2010 11:38 AM