The Rhetorical Précis: Explanations and Examples

In 1988, Margaret Woodworth reported on a reading/writing method that she called "the rhetorical précis," which significantly helped students at various levels, particularly in their reading comprehension and preparation for using source materials in their own academic writing. (A template can be found at the bottom of this page.) 

A rhetorical précis has only four sentences, each of which has specific guidelines:

  1. The name of the author, the genre and title of the work, the date in parentheses (you may add additional publishing information in parentheses or a note, if you think it would be valuable, but it is usually not necessary), a rhetorically accurate verb (such as "asserts," "argues," "suggests," "implies," "claims," etc.), and a THAT clause containing the major assertion (thesis statement) of the work. Optional: an appositive (a phrase describing the author) following the author's name.
     
  2. An explanation of how the author develops and/or supports the thesis, usually in chronological order.
     
  3. A statement of the author’s apparent purpose, followed by an "in order" phrase.
     
  4. A description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience. (Establishing the tone of the piece can be helpful with this part; see the MacFarquhar example below and the Dionne example further down.)

  Woodworth, Margaret K. "The Rhetorical Précis." Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.
 

           In her article "Who Cares if Johnny Can't Read?" (1997), Larissa MacFarquhar asserts that Americans are reading more than ever despite claims to the contrary and that it is time to reconsider why we value reading so much, especially certain kinds of "high culture" reading. MacFarquhar supports her claims about American reading habits with facts and statistics that compare past and present reading practices, and she challenges common assumptions by raising questions about reading's intrinsic value. Her purpose is to dispel certain myths about reading in order to raise new and more important questions about the value of reading and other media in our culture. She seems to have a young, hip, somewhat irreverent audience in mind because her tone is sarcastic, and she suggests that the ideas she opposes are old-fashioned positions.

From Reading Rhetorically. by John C. Bean, Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam.

  1. This example follows Woodworth's pattern exactly. The first sentence identifies the author (Larissa MacFarquhar), the genre (article), the title and date, and uses an active verb (asserts) and the relative pronoun that to explain exactly what MacFarquhar asserts.
     
  2. The second sentence explains how the writer supports her assertions by stating, in chronological order, that MacFarquhar first  presents facts and statistics and next challenges common assumptions by raising questions.
     
  3. The third sentence presents the author's purpose and why (in order to) she has set out that purpose (or seems to have set out that purpose--not all essays are explicit about this information, and readers have to put the pieces together).
     
  4. The final sentence identifies what appears to be the primary audience of the essay (college students) due to her tone.

Although précis are short, they are quite challenging. The benefits, as Woodworth points out in her article, are the following:

        Woodworth, Margaret K. "The Rhetorical Précis." Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.


Note: the original publication information for articles and others works reprinted in anthologies can usually be found in the "credits" or "acknowledgments" sections of books, generally at the end. In our text, the credits are on pages 731-32. Unfortunately, the credits section does not provide dates for all works; however, dates can usually be found by conducting a net search.  For example, the credits section in the text shows that the David Crary article was published by the Associated Press, but if you conducted an Internet search for "Crary, "Group Wants Shrek off Anti-obesity Campaign," you would also discover that the article was published April 25, 2007.


Here are other examples of rhetorical précis:


             Sandra M. Gilbert, professor of English at the University of California, Davis, in her essay “Plain Jane’s Progress” (1977), suggests that Charlotte Brontë intended Jane Eyre to resemble John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in that Jane’s pilgrimage through a series of events based on the enclosure and escape motif eventually lead toward the equality that Brontë herself sought. Gilbert supports this conclusion by using the structure of the novel to highlight the places Jane has been confined, the changes she undergoes during the process of escape, and the individuals and experiences that lead to her maturation concluding that "this marriage of true minds at Ferndean – this is the way" (501). Her purpose is to help readers see the role of women in Victorian England in order to help them understand the uniqueness and daring of Brontë’s work. She establishes a formal relationship with her audience of literary scholars interested in feminist criticism who are familiar with the work of Brontë, Bunyan, Lord Byron and others and are intrigued by feminist theory as it relates to Victorian literature.

from http://www.winthrop.edu/english/core/success/precis.htm


 

             Charles S. Peirce's article "The Fixation of Belief" (1877) asserts that humans have psychological and social mechanisms designed to protect and cement (or "fix") our beliefs. Peirce backs this claim up with descriptions of four methods of fixing belief, pointing out the effectiveness and potential weaknesses of each method. Peirce's purpose is to point out the ways that people commonly establish their belief systems in order to jolt the awareness of the reader into considering how their own belief system may the product of such methods and to consider what Peirce calls "the method of science" as a progressive alternative to the other three. Given the technical language used in the article, Peirce is writing to a well-educated audience with some knowledge of philosophy and history and a willingness to consider other ways of thinking.

from http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/rhetorical-precis/sample/peirce_sample_precis_click.html
 

              In her essay “Cyberspace and Identity” (1999), Sherry Turkle argues that “today’s life on the screen dramatizes and concretizes a range of cultural trends that encourage us to think of identity in terms of multiplicity and flexibility” (272). Turkle supports her assertion by juxtaposing theories of cyberspace and identity formation with older understandings of identity found in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Her purpose is to show readers that theories on cyberspace and identity, which claim that identity is multiple and cyclical, do not overturn, but rather add to our understandings of identity in order to encourage her audience “to rethink our relationship to the computer culture and psychoanalytic culture as proudly held joint citizenship” (278). Turkle’s tone assumes a highly educated audience who is familiar with theories not only of cyberspace and identity, but sociology and psychology as well. 
 

from http://www.rsu.edu/faculty/LGray/Turkle_precis.htm

             In chapter one of his novel The Light in the Forest (1953), Conrad Richter insinuates that children suffer the most when adults fight. Richter develops this insinuation by contrasting Cuyloga’s adoption and later rejection of True Son when the white army demands the return of all white prisoners.  Richter’s purpose in chapter one is to reveal True Son’s conflicting emotions in order to expose the effect that betrayal by adults has upon children.  Richter employs an angry and betrayed tone to appeal to those readers who can sympathize with True Son’s feelings of painful rejection.

from TeacherWeb

             In an excerpt from his book Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), reprinted in the anthology Left, Right, and Center, edited by James Cornwell, E. J. Dionne, a Washington Post political columnist, argues that strident ideologues on both the left and the right shave polarized politics and crowded out serious debate and reasonable compromise about fundamental problems. He supports his claims by providing examples of divisive positions taken by influential leaders on each end of the political spectrum and providing evidence of disillusionment with politics and politicians among the rank and file, contrasting this with movements toward democracy in other parts of the world (328-345). Dionne’s purpose is to warn readers that democracy may be failing in the United States because of powerful special-interest groups and voter apathy in order to stimulate people to a “back-to-basics” approach to politics that recognizes the importance of civil discourse, compromise, and the search for common ground in order to accomplish real and needed change. His tone is serious but also cautiously hopeful; he has in mind an audience of intelligent, concerned people who have not become too alienated to no longer care or believe that they can effect change.

Student submission, English 1A, Fall 2011


The following template is designed to help you construct a rhetorical précis. Do NOT simply copy and paste this template and fill in the blanks.  Your précis should be in paragraph form, as in the above examples.

Sentence One (What?)

_____________________________________ in the ______________ , _________________________________(year)
   (author)                                                                             (A. genre)                                 (title)

__________________________ that ___________________________________________________________________ .
   (B. verb)                                                      (major assertion or thesis)

 

Sentence Two (How?)

__________________________ supports (her) (his) ________________________ by ______________________________
   (author's last name)                                             (claims, assertions, arguments, etc.)        (B. and C. types of evidence from text

___________________________________________________________________________________________________ .
 in order presented in text)

 

Sentence Three (Why?)

(The author's purpose is to) __________________________________________________________ (in order to, so that, etc.)
                                                                  (D.)

__________________________________________________________________________________________________ .

 

Sentence Four (To Whom?)

(The author writes in a) _____________________ (tone for) ___________________________________________________ .
                                                   (E.)                                                  (apparent audience)

 

Here are examples of terms that can be used:

A.

genre

B.

rhetorically accurate verb

C.

verb followed by evidence

D.

in order to
E.

the author's tone is

         
article argues comparing . . . . convince formal
book asserts contrasting . . . . inform earnest
book review claims defining . . . . persuade grave
chapter in ___ explains describing point out humorous
excerpt from ___ implies exploring . . . . demonstrate that concerned
column suggests explaining . . . . show informal
editorial questions illustrating . . . . suggest that serious
 

Adapted from Lanzbom.


The following suggestions are adapted from a handout at http://phsenglishcoalesce2.pbworks.com/w/page/45986311/Rhetorical%20Pr%C3%A9cis%20Template-Worksheet
 

Think of the first sentence
this way:
 

 

 

 

WHO are you talking about?

WHAT is their background?

WHAT did they write?

WHEN was it published?

WHAT is their point?

 

Think of the second sentence this way:


 

HOW do they prove their thesis?
  • Do they offer interviews?
  • Official data?
  • Expert primary sources?
  • Secondary sources?
  • Anecdotes/Stories?
  • Careful description/observation?

 

Think of the third sentence
this way:


 

WHAT are they trying to do?
  • Are they trying to entertain their audience?
  • Are they trying to persuade them to feel a certain way or change their minds about an issue?
  • Are they trying to inform their audience – sharing information that teaches?

WHY is that their purpose? In order to accomplish what?

 

Think of the fourth sentence
this way:


 

WHO is the author trying to address?

Look for clues--who do they seem to be talking to?

  • Parents?
  • Consumers?
  • College students?
  • Registered voters?
  • It can be anyone.

WHAT relationship are they trying to establish?

Tone is an important clue--are they

  • Formal?
  • Informal?
  • friendly?
  • Serious?
  • Angry?
  • Humorous?

 

 Adapted from a handout at http://phsenglishcoalesce2.pbworks.com/w/page/45986311/Rhetorical%20Pr%C3%A9cis%20Template-Worksheet