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The Rhetorical Précis

The Rhetorical Précis


Students new to college-level reading can need guidance on how to read original source documents like journal articles. The rhetorical précis is a structured four-sentence paragraph designed to help students break down a reading into its essential components.

The activity

For a particularly difficult reading, ask students to come to class prepared with a paragraph including the following elements:

  1. Information about the reading
    • Name of author, (optional -- a phrase describing the author),

    • genre and title of work,

    • date in parentheses,

    • a descriptive verb such as "asserts," "argues," "implies," "suggests," "claims," etc., and

    • a "that" clause containing the essay's main assertion or thesis statement.

  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 to" phrase
  4. A description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.


In her essay, "The Cost of Public Prisons" (2001), political science professor Francis L. French argues in favor of making the prison system run by private corporations, claiming that they should no longer be run by the government. She supports this proposal by giving statistical evidence for her first supporting argument (that private corporations can run prisons more cheaply), and anecdotal evidence for her second supporting argument (that government-run prisons do not provide prisoners with useful skills). Her purpose is to inform readers about the current prison situation in order to convince them to support legislation in favor of privately-run prisons. She establishes a formal relationship with her audience, who she apparently expects to have some knowledge of the topic already, judging from her use of advanced vocabulary related to the topic.

From: Woodworth, M.K. (1988). The rhetorical precis. Rhetoric Review, 7(1): 156-164.


Because students may not have written something like this before, include a few models of high quality work in your syllabus or assignment sheets. It can help students immeasurably to see examples of what you are looking for.