Everything you need to know about Precis writing

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In the foregoing pages we have discussed different techniques for comprehending, condensing, analyzing and writing precis. So we have come to a stage where we should understand the discipline of precis-writing. For this purpose we will view the precis from two angles (i) subject matter (ii) style.

Subject Matter

Precis is not a catalogue of the various arguments given by the writer. The spirit of the passage should not be missed in the precis and if it is a mere catalogue it has no spirit. As skeleton of the human body with no flesh and soul cannot be a human being so a precis, which is just a condensation of the arguments, cannot be a precis. In one of his prose-writings, Tagore said that languages are jealous and we cannot learn them through translations as we cannot woo a lady through an attorney.

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The same can be said of precis ; couching the arguments of another person in our own language is nothing short of wooing a lady through an attorney. If we allow the spirit of the original to breathe through the precis only then we are clever ‘attorneys’ to help others to understand the writer.

What do we mean by the spirit of the passage ? If the style is poetic, precis should not miss the poetry ; if the writer is ironical and satirical, its significance should be brought forth. We are liable to raise the imaginative flights of writer if we ignore it while writing a precis.

(a) Rearrangement of arguments.

But in almost all the com­petitive examinations the passages for precis writing are argumenta­tive so more important aspect of the spirit of the passage is the rearrangement of the arguments according to the importance of the arguments in the passage. This means that the most important argu­ment is to be brought in the opening sentence of the precis. The following arguments will be placed strictly according to their relation with the most important argument.

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How should we establish the importance of the arguments ? It i ; wrong i”to presume that the most important argument is given cither in the beginning or towards the close of the passage. In fact

Precis-passages are not independent wholes, rather these are selected from the essays of the great writers like Russell, Huxley, Radha Krishanan, etc. If the passage is taken from the exposition of the essay, the writer may introduce the subject without touching the main argument. Similarly a passage from the climax may give various arguments to support the conclusion. If the passage is picked up from the closing portion of the essay the writer may sum up the arguments. Clearly it is a gross mistake to consider the opening or the closing sentence of the passage as the most important argument.

We have already discussed the methods for analyzing paragraphs. The topic points of all the paragraphs of the passage will show that there is something common in all of them. In order to know which aspects of that topic are discussed we should ask ourselves five questions (i) does the writer discuss ‘what’ ? of the problem, (ii) or ‘why’ ? of the topic, (iii) or ‘how’ ? of the issue, (iv) or ‘when’ ? (v) or ‘where’ of the point.

The writer will generally, not give more than two aspects of the problem. Suppose ‘demo­cracy’ is the common topic of the various topic points and ‘what’ and ‘why’ of it are discussed, this means that the ‘definition’ of democracy and the arguments for the continuance of democracy are given. This becomes the most important argument. The topics of the different paragraphs have relation with the most important argument and they are to be placed accordingly.

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(b) Pruning of the arguments.

The arguments are to be chiseled according to the main topic point. Suppose the main topic point is ‘arguments against democracy’ and one of the argument is “It is only freedom of speech and freedom to act that can develop the personality of an individual. When newspapers stuff our brains with ready-made opinions and radio gives biased news how can there be freedom to think and so to speak.”

The argument emphasizes the development of personality but seems to be throw light on the main topic. So it should be written thus : “In a democratic state as newspapers and radio give partial views, freedom to speak and act, which are necessary to develop personality, cannot be enjoyed.” The rewritten sentence connects the argument with the topic point by adding “in a democratic state.” Sometimes the arrangement of the different portions of the sentence is to be changed to connect it with the topic.

(c) Opening Sentence.

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The opening sentence of the precis is the restatement of the topic point in a general form. In other words the analysis of the passage should be given in the beginning as to give a total impression of the points discussed in the passage. Clearly it will be directly connected with the title that is assigned to the precis.

Closing Sentences. There is a great temptation to give a sort of ‘resume’ in the closing lines of the precis. But it is wrong. In a precis there should be no repetition, so ‘resume’ is out of place.

Precis is not a finished piece of writing so it is not necessary to give any artistic ending ; it may be abrupt but no unnecessary additions are to be made.

Style of Writing Precis

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The style of precis is as important as in the subject matter ; almost equal marks are allotted to both. We have already discussed some aspects of the style. For the sake of clarity, we will discuss style under the following heads (i) Unity, (ii) Clarity, (iii) Brevity, and (iv) Language.

(i) Unity

By unity in the precis, we mean organic connection of the arguments. The following argument must naturally emerge out of the previous one. The reader should not have to exert in order to establish a connection ; it should be a smooth reading.

There are various methods to establish unity in the precis. First is to write the sentences in a manner that the accent of the previous sentence is carried forward by the accent of the following sentence. Some students make use of conjunctions like ‘and’, ‘more over’, ‘but’, etc , to foster unity. But it is a very superficial and crude method and should be avoided. Second method to bring unity is to avoid paragraphing of the precis. Paragraphs have connection with one another according to the unity of design. Whereas in the case of a precis unity is logical one. We make paragraphs, if extremely necessary, if the passage runs into more than a thousand words.

Thirdly, if there are many arguments and all of them independent, defying all attempts at generalization, we write the number of argu­ments to connect them, e g., “four arguments for defending demo­cracy are …” The use of the word ‘four’ gives unity of impression to the reader. Fourthly, if an argument seems to disconnected it should be left out. It happens in rare cases and in those also the argument must not be an essential one. Lastly, analysis of the passage, which is given in the beginning, helps in unifying the threads of the main topic. It also helps in making the precis clear.

(ii) Clarity

Clarity is the second important essential of precis-writing. The aim of precis is to rivet the attention of the reader upon the essential details in their logical sequence. Some students write very long sentences reducing the various arguments to phrases. This type of sentence construction fails to give due im­portance to tha arguments and the reader has to follow a zig-zag path and is liable to misunderstand the meaning and intention of the writer. Moreover this sounds like a declamatory style, which is out of place in a precis.

The methods to bring clarity in the precis are many, First method, as has already been pointed out is to give the analysis of the passage in the beginning. Second method is to write simple sentences—simple in the grammatical sense of the word. In other words there should be no clauses and no phrases, as far as it is possible. We are using the qualifying phrase—’as far as it is possible’—because sometimes it is possible to cover the essentials of an argument with a simple sentence. Thirdly, the sentence should be in active voice, as far as possible.

Sentences in passive voice give subordinate position to the subject and the idea does not travel smoothly from the subject to the object. Fourthly, all the figures of speech are to be eliminated. Similes and metaphors may make the language vivid but neither clear nor direct. That is why we do not make use of idioms in a precis—most of the idiomatic expressions are the figurative use of the words.

(iii) Brevity

The very definition of the ‘Precis’ implies that the language should be brief. We have already discussed the various methods of making brief languages under the heading, condensing the passage’.

(iv) Language. As has already been discussed, language of the precis should be direct and straight-forward. The words should be appropriate and expressive. The sentences should be simple, brief and to the point. The methods to make the language suitable for a precis have already been discussed.

Other Rules of Precis Writing

With the.help of the precis we report the ideas, arguments or views of the writer to a third person. Obviously it should be written in indirect narration. If the passage is a speech, first person will be changed into third person and verb into past tense. It is wrong to think that verb should always be changed.

In an ordinary prose, the writer may raise questions and then answer them. But in a precis no questions are raised : answers imply the questions. For example “why do the students go on strike ? They find their future uncertain and dark”—should be rewritten in a precis as “The students go on strike because they find their future dark.”

Words and phrases in the precis should not be borrowed from the passage. The language of the precis should be original. Accor­ding to Denys Thomson, borrowed words and phrases “stick out like uncooked lumps of oatmeal in porridge.”

The length of the precis is always prescribed and must be ad­hered to. The number of words should exceed or fall short of the prescribed limit by not more than 5 in any case. If the limit is not laid down it should be 1/3 of the original passage.

It is only in rare cases that we use the phrase ‘the writer says’. The use of this phrase mars the style and the artistic beauty. When the writer quotes some one’s opinions and differs from or agrees with him, we can use this phrase otherwise not.

Title must invariably be assigned. It is the title that gives clue to the correct understanding of the passage.

Title of a Precis

Students attach very little importance to the heading of the- precis. In fact the title is the most important part of the precis. It shows whether the student has understood the passage or not. So, selection of the heading should be made judiciously, it is a “touch­stone by which to test the relative importance of different points.”

(R. W. Jepson)

Heading of a precis differs from the title of (/’) a book (i/) an article (iii) or a news-story in its essentials. Title of a book is assign­ed to lure the reader into reading either by arousing curiosity or by giving imaginative touches. Title of an article is selected to give the latest slant to the topic. Similarly for assigning the beading of a news-story human interest is kept in mind. But the beading of a precis should be a faithful mirror of the analysis of the passage. “How to win friends and influence others” is a good title for a book, “grain trade take over and our democracy” for an article, “6 die in an air crash” for a news-story. But all of them are inappro­priate for a precis. Following are the essential qualities of the title of a precis—

(i) There should be no verb in the title.

(i/) The title should not be in the form of an interrogation. (»i) It should give a clear idea of the analysis of the passage.

(iv) Title should not run into more than five or six words normally.

(v) According to Fielden title “shall be, in effect, a precis of the precis.”

Heading should in no case be general ; it should be specific. R.W. Jepson has given an example to illustrate this point. According to Jepson, Bacon’s essay “ON TRAVEL” should be given the title “Advice to a Young Man on Travelling Abroad” for the purpose of precis.

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