HOW TO WRITE A PRÉCIS
HOW TO WRITE A PRÉCIS
This quarter, you will write four précis (pronounced “pray-see” in both its singular and plural forms). The goal of a précis is to faithfully reproduce the arguments of an original document while reducing its length to about 1/6 the length of the original. For each assignment, you’ll be producing précis of about two pages (approximately 450-600 words).
Prepare to write your précis:
- Read the selection carefully.
- While reading, note the main argument and any supporting material you come across. It can be helpful to underline or highlight important points, or to make notes in a separate notebook.
- You will need to read the selection multiple times. Try to see new things in every reading.
Write the précis:
- Begin to work through the text, condensing the material you have read without leaving out any part of the argument. A helpful approach is to start by organizing and underlining the topic sentences in each paragraph throughout the document. Depending on the theorist, it can also be helpful to check the introduction and conclusion to each section or each long paragraph. These will often provide most of your précis’s skeleton.
- If there are any key terms used by the author of the text, make sure that they are mentioned and indirectly defined within your précis.
- Write as if you were the author. Do not write, “In this piece, Marx says ____.” In a précis, you actually trying to be Marx, except that you are translating him in such a way that even your non-Sociology friends can understand the text.
A précis, strictly speaking, does not include your own opinions about the work. Instead, it succinctly encapsulates (a) the theoretical content of the work, (b) the research that went into the work (if applicable), (c) the conclusions of the work, and (d) what about the work is important.
- This is not a reflection paper or book report – it’s an exact replica of the original, but shorter, and in different words. Think of it as a translation from “more complicated” to “more basic.”
- Try not to quote the text, and limit paraphrasing unless absolutely necessary (that is, unless there’s no other way to say it).
- Don’t add any opinion or new examples.
- Don’t use expressions like, “This passage says…” You don’t want to “stand apart” from the document, but rather, to reproduce its intent, tone, style and mood in different words.
- DO NOT move past the sentence you are working with until you fully understand it, no matter how much background research you have to do in order to understand it.
- Don’t be attached to a sentence once you have written it. Going back to change, re-edit, adjust, add, remove, etc. is part of writing a good précis.
- Practice to simply ignoring/tossing out any text that doesn’t add to your point.
- All work must be edited for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., just as you would a formal paper.
SAMPLE PRÉCIS – Marx (in Calhoun)
Start point: middle of pg. 147 (“The worker become all the poorer…)
End point: top of pg. 154 (“…various hitherto unsolved conflicts)
The value of a worker is inversely proportional to the value of the goods that he produces. The worker makes commodities, and is himself a commodity. When a worker’s labor is used to make something, the labor becomes an object that is alienated from the worker. Estranged labor decreases the worker’s value while increasing his dependence on capital. The worker is alienated from the product of his labor, and the product of the worker’s labor diminishes him.
Nature provides the worker with both his means of subsistence and the raw materials he needs to turn his labor into a product. When the worker uses materials from the external world, he objectifies it and compromises his own subsistence. The worker cannot physically sustain himself without the money he earns through work; these earnings further ensure that he will continue to exist physically as a worker. The value of a worker is inversely proportional to the value of the goods that he produces.
Political economy hides the estranged relationship between the worker and production. Labor creates useful goods for those who can consume them while harming those who make them. The most important relationship for us to consider is that of the worker to production. The worker is not only alienated from the product of his labor, but from the process of production. While he is working, the worker must constantly deny his physical and mental preferences. We can tell that labor is coerced because the worker does not participate in it unless he has to in order to satisfy a need. When a worker labors for someone else, he belongs to that person rather than to himself. The worker then feels free only in performing animal functions such as eating, sleeping, and procreating. If estrangement from the object of the worker’s labor is estrangement from a thing, then the worker’s estrangement from the process of laboring is estrangement from himself.
A third form of estrangement is alienation from species-being. Man is a species-being because he understands himself to be a member of a species. Physically, man lives on the products of nature. Estranged labor separates the life of the species from man’s individual life. The activities at which man labors to maintain his physical existence are not estranged. The life-maintaining activities of man and the life-maintaining activities of animal are distinct because man is conscious of these activities as separate from himself. Estranged labor causes alienation by turning this conscious activity into a mere means for existence. Animals produce only to meet an immediate physical need; man produces beyond immediate need. Man is conscious of the existence of species beyond his own. Man can also create objects of beauty. When man is deprived of the object of his production, he is also deprived of his species-life. If nature is taken away from him, he has no advantage over animals: his spontaneous free activity becomes merely a means for survival.
When men are estranged from their own species-nature, they are also estranged from other men. The products and the labor from which men are alienated must belong to other men. Like the product of labor and the process of laboring, these other men are also alien and hostile to the worker. It seems like private property creates alienated labor, but it is actually alienated labor that creates private property through the estrangement of man from other men.
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