Writing a rhetorical précis

academic skills

Structured summaries to remember and retrieve what you read


Zak Varty


October 7, 2022

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

What is a rhetorical precis?

Photograph of a filing cabinet filled with library index cards.

A rhetorical precis is a short summary and analysis of a piece of writing, which considers both the content and the delivery of the piece.

A rhetorical precis serves to summarise and analyse the text through:

  • an accurate bibliographic reference to the text,
  • a list of keywords relating to the text,
  • a highly structured four-sentence paragraph providing a summary and analysis of the text.

Why write one?

Keeping a rhetorical precis for each text that you read is a fantasitc way to build the skills of active reading and succinct writing. A rhetorical precis is more informative than a bib entry and more easily reviewed (read: waded through) than a stack of annotated papers.

Taken collectively, a set of rhetorical precis summaries provide a reading record that can be a tremendously useful when trying to recall the contents of a paper or book long after you originally read it.

How to store them?

Writing and storing these reading summaries electronically can make them even more useful. This allows you to search for topics, target audiences or keywords.

For this reason it can be helpful to keep them all together in one word document or plain text file. Alternatively, having a single folder with each summary as a plain text or markdown file works well if you are comfortable with searching at the command line. The same can be achieved by writing these summaries within a reference manager, if that is something you are invested in already.


Just to prove that I’m not making all this up:

A rhetorical precis analyzes both the content (the what) and the delivery (the how) of a unit of spoken or written discourse. It is a highly structured four-sentence paragraph blending summary and analysis. Each of the four sentences requires specific information; students are expected to use brief quotations (to convey a sense of the author’s style and tone) and to include a terminal bibliographic reference. Practicing this sort of writing fosters precision in both reading and writing, forcing a writer to employ a variety of sentence structures and to develop a discerning eye for connotative shades of meaning.
Attribution: lumenlearning.com


Four sentences summarising the aim of the work, how this is addressed, why it is important and a description of the target audience.

  1. Name of author, [optional phrase describing author], genre and title of work, date in parentheses (additional publishing information in parentheses); a rhetorically accurate verb (such as “asserts,” “argues,” suggests,” “implies,” claims,” etc.); a THAT clause containing the major assertion or thesis statement of the work.
  2. An explanation of how the author develops and/or supports the thesis, usually in chronological order.
  3. A statement of the author’s purpose followed by an “in order to” phrase.
  4. A description of the intended audience and/or the essay’s tone

A (self-indulgent) example

Here is a rather self-indulgent example of a rhetorical precis.


Title: Inference for extreme earthquake magnitudes accounting for a time-varying measurement process. {ArXiV preprint, 2021} (20 pages).

Authors: Zak Varty, Jonathan Tawn, Peter Atkinson and Stijn Bierman.

Key words: extreme value, earthquake, threshold selection, magnitude of completion, seismology, bootstrap.

In this paper, Varty et al (2021) propose a new threshold selection method for modelling earthquake catalogues, where the magnitude distribution is stationary but detection of small events improves over time. The paper generalises the Gutenberg-Richter law to the GPD and uses metrics based on PP and QQ plots to balance between bias and variance when selecting a time-varying threshold. This procedure more than doubles the usable catalogue size for Groningen earthquakes and gives the first emprircal evidence that the magnitude distribution in this region has a finite upper end point. The paper is targeted at applied and research statisticians with an interest in EVT but would also be accessible to a statistically-minded seismologist.

A template for new entries


Title: Title goes here. {Journal, YYYY} (NN pages).

Authors: Author One, Author Two and Author Three. (optional affiliations)

Key words: key word 1, key word 2, key work 3.

  1. What is the document and what does it say?
  2. How do they do / show this?
  3. Why are they bothering to do this in the first place?
  4. Who is the intended audience for this work?

In this DOC_TYPE, AUTHOUR VERB that THESIS_STATEMENT. They DO/SHOW this by ACTIONS. This is important to PEOPLE because REASONS. This work would be useful when PEOPLE are doing ACTIVITY.


**Title:** _Title goes here. {Journal, YYYY} (NN pages)._

**Authors:** _Author One, Author Two and Author Three. (optional affiliations)_

**Key words:** _key word 1_, _key word 2_, _key work 3_. 

1. _What_ is the document and _what_ does it say? 
2. _How_ do they do / show this?
3. _Why_ are they bothering to do this in the first place?
4. _Who_ is the intended audience for this work?

They DO/SHOW this by ACTIONS. 
This is important to PEOPLE because REASONS. 
This work would be useful when PEOPLE are doing ACTIVITY.



BibTeX citation:
  author = {Zak Varty},
  title = {Writing a Rhetorical Précis},
  date = {2022-10-07},
  url = {https://www.zakvarty.com/blog/2022-10-07-rhetorical-precis},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Zak Varty. 2022. “Writing a Rhetorical Précis.” October 7, 2022. https://www.zakvarty.com/blog/2022-10-07-rhetorical-precis.