For other uses, see Essay (disambiguation).
For a description of essays as used by Wikipedia editors, see Wikipedia:Essays.
"Essai" redirects here. For other uses, see Essai (disambiguation).
An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.
Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g., Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population are counterexamples. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills; admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants, and in the humanities and social sciences essays are often used as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.
The concept of an "essay" has been extended to other mediums beyond writing. A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary filmmaking styles and focuses more on the evolution of a theme or idea. A photographic essay covers a topic with a linked series of photographs that may have accompanying text or captions.
An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece". Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:
- The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole "write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description".
- The objective, the factual, and the concrete particular: The essayists that write from this pole "do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data".
- The abstract-universal: In this pole "we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions", who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience.
Huxley adds that the most satisfying essays "...make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist."
The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Œuvres Morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life, he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
English essayists included Robert Burton (1577–1641) and Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). In France, Michel de Montaigne's three volume Essais in the mid 1500s contain over 100 examples widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern essay. In Italy, Baldassare Castiglione wrote about courtly manners in his essay Il Cortigiano. In the 17th century, the JesuitBaltasar Gracián wrote about the theme of wisdom. During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position; they also featured heavily in the rise of periodical literature, as seen in the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote essays for the general public. The early 19th century, in particular, saw a proliferation of great essayists in English – William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thomas de Quincey all penned numerous essays on diverse subjects. In the 20th century, a number of essayists tried to explain the new movements in art and culture by using essays (e.g., T.S. Eliot). Whereas some essayists used essays for strident political themes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote lighter essays. Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos wrote literary criticism essays.
Main article: Zuihitsu
As with the novel, essays existed in Japan several centuries before they developed in Europe with a genre of essays known as zuihitsu — loosely connected essays and fragmented ideas. Zuihitsu have existed since almost the beginnings of Japanese literature. Many of the most noted early works of Japanese literature are in this genre. Notable examples include The Pillow Book (c. 1000), by court lady Sei Shōnagon, and Tsurezuregusa (1330), by particularly renowned Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō. Kenkō described his short writings similarly to Montaigne, referring to them as "nonsensical thoughts" written in "idle hours". Another noteworthy difference from Europe is that women have traditionally written in Japan, though the more formal, Chinese-influenced writings of male writers were more prized at the time.
Forms and styles
This section describes the different forms and styles of essay writing. These forms and styles are used by an array of authors, including university students and professional essayists.
Cause and effect
The defining features of a "cause and effect" essay are causal chains that connect from a cause to an effect, careful language, and chronological or emphatic order. A writer using this rhetorical method must consider the subject, determine the purpose, consider the audience, think critically about different causes or consequences, consider a thesis statement, arrange the parts, consider the language, and decide on a conclusion.
Classification and division
Classification is the categorization of objects into a larger whole while division is the breaking of a larger whole into smaller parts.
Compare and contrast
Compare and contrast essays are characterized by a basis for comparison, points of comparison, and analogies. It is grouped by the object (chunking) or by point (sequential). The comparison highlights the similarities between two or more similar objects while contrasting highlights the differences between two or more objects. When writing a compare/contrast essay, writers need to determine their purpose, consider their audience, consider the basis and points of comparison, consider their thesis statement, arrange and develop the comparison, and reach a conclusion. Compare and contrast is arranged emphatically.
Descriptive writing is characterized by sensory details, which appeal to the physical senses, and details that appeal to a reader's emotional, physical, or intellectual sensibilities. Determining the purpose, considering the audience, creating a dominant impression, using descriptive language, and organizing the description are the rhetorical choices to consider when using a description. A description is usually arranged spatially but can also be chronological or emphatic. The focus of a description is the scene. Description uses tools such as denotative language, connotative language, figurative language, metaphor, and simile to arrive at a dominant impression. One university essay guide states that "descriptive writing says what happened or what another author has discussed; it provides an account of the topic".Lyric essays are an important form of descriptive essays.
In the dialectic form of the essay, which is commonly used in philosophy, the writer makes a thesis and argument, then objects to their own argument (with a counterargument), but then counters the counterargument with a final and novel argument. This form benefits from presenting a broader perspective while countering a possible flaw that some may present. This type is sometimes called an ethics paper.
An exemplification essay is characterized by a generalization and relevant, representative, and believable examples including anecdotes. Writers need to consider their subject, determine their purpose, consider their audience, decide on specific examples, and arrange all the parts together when writing an exemplification essay.
An essayist writes a familiar essay if speaking to a single reader, writing about both themselves, and about particular subjects. Anne Fadiman notes that "the genre's heyday was the early nineteenth century," and that its greatest exponent was Charles Lamb. She also suggests that while critical essays have more brain than the heart, and personal essays have more heart than brain, familiar essays have equal measures of both.
A history essay sometimes referred to as a thesis essay describes an argument or claim about one or more historical events and supports that claim with evidence, arguments, and references. The text makes it clear to the reader why the argument or claim is as such.
A narrative uses tools such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and transitions that often build to a climax. The focus of a narrative is the plot. When creating a narrative, authors must determine their purpose, consider their audience, establish their point of view, use dialogue, and organize the narrative. A narrative is usually arranged chronologically.
An argumentative essay is a critical piece of writing, aimed at presenting objective analysis of the subject matter, narrowed down to a single topic. The main idea of all the criticism is to provide an opinion either of positive or negative implication. As such, a critical essay requires research and analysis, strong internal logic and sharp structure. Its structure normally builds around introduction with a topic's relevance and a thesis statement, body paragraphs with arguments linking back to the main thesis, and conclusion. In addition, an argumentative essay may include a refutation section where conflicting ideas are acknowledged, described, and criticized. Each argument of argumentative essay should be supported with sufficient evidence, relevant to the point.
An economic essay can start with a thesis, or it can start with a theme. It can take a narrative course and a descriptive course. It can even become an argumentative essay if the author feels the need. After the introduction, the author has to do his/her best to expose the economic matter at hand, to analyze it, evaluate it, and draw a conclusion. If the essay takes more of a narrative form then the author has to expose each aspect of the economic puzzle in a way that makes it clear and understandable for the reader
A reflective essay is an analytical piece of writing in which the writer describes a real or imaginary scene, event, interaction, passing thought, memory, or form — adding a personal reflection on the meaning of the topic in the author's life. Thus, the focus is not merely descriptive. The writer doesn’t just describe the situation, but revisits the scene with more detail and emotion to examine what went well, or reveal a need for additional learning — and may relate what transpired to the rest of the author's life.
Other logical structures
The logical progression and organizational structure of an essay can take many forms. Understanding how the movement of thought is managed through an essay has a profound impact on its overall cogency and ability to impress. A number of alternative logical structures for essays have been visualized as diagrams, making them easy to implement or adapt in the construction of an argument.
Main article: Free response
In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, essays have become a major part of a formal education in the form of free response questions. Secondary students in these countries are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in these countries in selecting applicants (seeadmissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of the material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay. In some courses, university students must complete one or more essays over several weeks or months. In addition, in fields such as the humanities and social sciences, mid-term and end of term examinations often require students to write a short essay in two or three hours.
In these countries, so-called academic essays also called papers, are usually more formal than literary ones. They may still allow the presentation of the writer's own views, but this is done in a logical and factual manner, with the use of the first person often discouraged. Longer academic essays (often with a word limit of between 2,000 and 5,000 words) are often more discursive. They sometimes begin with a short summary analysis of what has previously been written on a topic, which is often called a literature review.
Longer essays may also contain an introductory page that defines words and phrases of the essay's topic. Most academic institutions require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other supporting material in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention helps others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of facts and quotations the author uses to support the essay's argument and helps readers evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and is designed to test their intellectual capabilities.
One of the challenges facing universities is that in some cases, students may submit essays purchased from an essay mill (or "paper mill") as their own work. An "essay mill" is a ghostwriting service that sells pre-written essays to university and college students. Since plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud, universities and colleges may investigate papers they suspect are from an essay mill by using plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers.
Magazine or newspaper
Main article: Long-form journalism
Essays often appear in magazines, especially magazines with an intellectual bent, such as The Atlantic and Harpers. Magazine and newspaper essays use many of the essay types described in the section on forms and styles (e.g., descriptive essays, narrative essays, etc.). Some newspapers also print essays in the op-ed section.
Employment essays detailing experience in a certain occupational field are required when applying for some jobs, especially government jobs in the United States. Essays known as Knowledge Skills and Executive Core Qualifications are required when applying to certain US federal government positions.
A KSA, or "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities," is a series of narrative statements that are required when applying to Federal government job openings in the United States. KSAs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the successful performance of a position are contained on each job vacancy announcement. KSAs are brief and focused essays about one's career and educational background that presumably qualify one to perform the duties of the position being applied for.
An Executive Core Qualification, or ECQ, is a narrative statement that is required when applying to Senior Executive Service positions within the US Federal government. Like the KSAs, ECQs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The Office of Personnel Management has established five executive core qualifications that all applicants seeking to enter the Senior Executive Service must demonstrate.
A film essay (or "cinematic essay") consists of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se, or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The cinematic essay often blends documentary, fiction, and experimental film making using tones and editing styles.
The genre is not well-defined but might include propaganda works of early Soviet parliamentarians like Dziga Vertov, present-day filmmakers including Chris Marker,Michael Moore (Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line (1988)), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me: A Film of Epic Portions) and Agnès Varda. Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays". Two filmmakers whose work was the antecedent to the cinematic essay include Georges Méliès and Bertolt Brecht. Méliès made a short film (The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)) about the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, which mixes actual footage with shots of a recreation of the event. Brecht was a playwright who experimented with film and incorporated film projections into some of his plays.Orson Welles made an essay film in his own pioneering style, released in 1974, called F for Fake, which dealt specifically with art forger Elmyr de Hory and with the themes of deception, "fakery," and authenticity in general. These are often published online on video hosting services.
David Winks Gray's article "The essay film in action" states that the "essay film became an identifiable form of filmmaking in the 1950s and '60s". He states that since that time, essay films have tended to be "on the margins" of the filmmaking the world. Essay films have a "peculiar searching, questioning tone ... between documentary and fiction" but without "fitting comfortably" into either genre. Gray notes that just like written essays, essay films "tend to marry the personal voice of a guiding narrator (often the director) with a wide swath of other voices". The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque website echoes some of Gray's comments; it calls a film essay an "intimate and allusive" genre that "catches filmmakers in a pensive mood, ruminating on the margins between fiction and documentary" in a manner that is "refreshingly inventive, playful, and idiosyncratic".
In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.
A photographic essay strives to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full-text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order — or they may consist of non-ordered photographs viewed all at once or in an order that the viewer chooses. All photo essays are collections of photographs, but not all collections of photographs are photo essays. Photo essays often address a certain issue or attempt to capture the character of places and events.
In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch that forms a basis for a final painting or sculpture, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essayJA's meaning of "attempt" or "trial").
- ^Holman, William (2003). A Handbook to Literature (9 ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 193.
- ^Gale – Free Resources – Glossary – DEArchived 2010-04-25 at the Wayback Machine.. Gale.cengage.com. Retrieved March 23, 2011.
- ^Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, "Preface".
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- ^ abessay (literature) – Britannica Online EncyclopediaArchived 2009-12-04 at the Wayback Machine.. Britannica.com. Retrieved March 22, 2011.
- ^Chapter 7: Cause and Effect in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Chapter 5: Classification and Division in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Chapter 6: Comparison and Contrast in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Chapter 2: Description in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Section 2.1 of the Simon Fraser University CNS Essay Handbook. Available online at: sfu.ca
- ^"How to Write an Ethics Paper (with Pictures) - wikiHow". Archived from the original on 2016-08-28. Retrieved 2016-07-01.
- ^Chapter 4: Exemplification in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Fadiman, Anne. At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. p. x.
- ^Fadiman, At Large and At Small, xi.
- ^History Essay Format & Thesis Statement, (February 2010)
- ^Chapter 3 Narration in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
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- ^Liptak, Andrew (2016-08-01). "This filmmaker deep-dives into what makes your favorite cartoons tick". The Verge. Archived from the original on 2017-08-30. Retrieved 2017-07-05.
- ^Gray, David Winks (January 30, 2009). "The essay film in action". San Francisco Film Society. Archived from the original on March 15, 2009.
- ^"Talking Pictures: The Art of the Essay Film". Cinema.wisc.edu. Retrieved March 22, 2011.
- Theodor W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form" in: Theodor W. Adorno, The Adorno Reader, Blackwell Publishers 2000.
- Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs d'encre: Rhétorique de l'autoportrait'. Paris: Seuil, 1980. [Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait. Trans. Yara Milos. New York: NYU Press, 1991].
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- D'Agata, John (Editor), The Lost Origins of the Essay. St Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009.
- Giamatti, Louis. "The Cinematic Essay", in Godard and the Others: Essays in Cinematic Form. London, Tantivy Press, 1975.
- Lopate, Phillip. "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film", in Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film. Edited by Charles Warren, Wesleyan University Press, 1998. pp. 243–270.
- Warburton, Nigel. The basics of essay writing. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0-415-24000-X, ISBN 978-0-415-24000-0
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Writing a Summary or Rhetorical Précis to Analyze Nonfiction Texts
Academic writers across all disciplines analyze texts. They summarize and critique published articles, evaluate papers' arguments, and reflect on essays. In order to do these things, they have to read complex texts carefully and understand them clearly.
This page is about how you can read and analyze nonfiction texts. When you’ve read a text well, you can then discuss it in class, think critically about it, incorporate it into your writing, consider it in light of other texts, and advance or push against its ideas. We believe two productive strategies for approaching this kind of reading and analysis are active reading and rhetorical précis writing. This page provides a guide to these strategies and practical ways to help you evaluate, compare, and reflect upon nonfiction texts.
Active reading requires you to slow your reading down, engage more intentionally with the text, think about it, and focus your attention on its ideas. When you read actively, you can’t just flip pages and daydream about tomorrow’s plans. Much has been written about active reading, but generally we recommend that when you read you:
- Skim over the text before reading it.
Look to see how long it is, where it's published, how it may be divided into sections, what kind of works cited list it has, whether there are appendices, etc. Use the title to help you predict what the text is about and what it argues. This overview will help you to understand the context, genre, and purpose of this piece as well as help you gauge how long it will take you to read it and how it might be relevant to your class, paper, or project.
- Take notes about the text’s key ideas and your responses to those ideas.
Depending on the text and your preferences, these notes could be made on your copy of the text or article or in a separate place. Notes will help you remember and process what the text is about and what you think about it.
In addition to these strategies, we firmly believe that one of the best ways to understand a book, article, essay, blog post, etc. is to write a summary of it. Specifically, we recommend that you use your reading to generate a rhetorical précis.
Introduction to the Rhetorical Précis
"Précis" is French for "specific" or "precise." It's also a particular kind of writing. When you write a précis you have to exactly and succinctly account for the most important parts of a text. If you write a successful précis, it is a good indication that you’ve read that text closely and that you understand its major moves and arguments. Writing a précis is an excellent way to show that you’ve closely read a text.
Disclaimer: There are different kinds of précis for different contexts. A legal précis is different from what we're talking about here. Some précis are longer or shorter than others. If you are writing a précis as a course assignment, be sure to follow your instructor’s guidance on what this should consist of and how it should be formatted.
Sometimes rhetorical précis writing is a course requirement. However, even if you aren't required to write a précis for a class, writing one can help you in a number of ways. Writing a précis guides your reading and directs your attention to the key aspects of a text. Précis writing prepares you to discuss a text and sets you up for that important next step: analysis. A rhetorical précis can even help you structure your annotated bibliography annotations or provide you with summary sentences to include in a paper as you account for your sources.
Parts of a Rhetorical Précis
A rhetorical précis, as developed by Margaret K. Woodworth and described in her 1988 article "The Rhetorical Précis" (published by Rhetoric Review), consists of four dense but direct sentences.
- The first sentence identifies who wrote the text, where and when it was published, and what its topic and claim are.
- The second sentence explores how the text is developed and organized.
- The third sentence explains why the author wrote this, her purpose or intended effect.
- The fourth and final sentence describes the “for whom” of the text by clarifying who the intended or assumed audience of this text is.
Let’s look more closely at those four parts.
First Sentence: Who, Where, When, and What?
Start by identifying the author and offering any information that might help clarify who this person is in relation to this text. Is this a scholar? If so, what is her field? Is she a public official or a prominent blogger? Is he a public intellectual? A reporter? A spokesperson? Has he written other stuff? Locate a bio in the journal or the book cover. Do a quick internet search. Figuring out who writer this is will help you understand some of the texts' context.
Next up, the publication. What is its title? Is it a book in a series or an article in a special collection? Does it appear in the leisure section of a local newspaper? Sometimes the title of the journal is self-explanatory, but at other times it’s unfamiliar or not clearly connected to a specific discipline. Explain it as necessary. Add the date in parentheses after the title of the text. Unless it’s a newspaper, magazine, or time-sensitive online article, usually just the year will suffice.
The rest of the sentence should be about the article’s topic—what it is about. In order to make this part particularly precise, use a rhetorically strong verb to describe the author’s claim. For example, the author may suggest, argue, analyze, imply, urge, contrast, or claim something.
Second Sentence: How?
In this sentence, provide a very condensed outline of how the author develops, structures, and supports the argument. What kind of evidence does the article draw upon? How is the case built? Perhaps by comparing and contrasting, illustrating, defining, or providing context? Perhaps the text starts out with a narrative and then moves into a description of several research studies? This sentence should account for all the most important moves made across this piece.
Third Sentence: Why?
What does the writer want the reader to do, believe, feel, or think about all this? What was the purpose of this text? In the first sentence, you told us what that author is arguing; now it is time to consider why the author has done all of this. Use an “in order to” phrase in this sentence to very clearly indicate the purpose.
Fourth Sentence: For Whom?
In the final sentence, identify the author’s intended audience and offer some rationale for how you know that to be the audience. Look back at the publication and think about who is likely to read this kind of magazine, journal, or book. Pay attention to the language used in this piece and how much background the writer provides. What does the writer assume readers believe, know, or value? Identifying the audience helps you consider how rhetorically effective this text is.
An Annotated Sample of a Rhetorical Précis
Take a look at this annotated précis of William Cronon's 1995 article "The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." It closely follows the précis structure outlined above.
In "The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature" (1995), the opening essay of the edited collection Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, renowned environmental historian William Cronon [Comment: The information about who Cronon is was very easily located at the end of the article and through a quick internet search.] critiques the romantic idolization of supposedly untouched, vast wilderness and argues that such a perspective of wilderness negatively affects humankind's relationship with nature. Cronon builds a historical case for wilderness as a human construct, explores the cultural and literary foundations for the belief that wilderness is a sublime frontier, identifies the problematic paradoxes inherent in this belief, and outlines the detriments of and possible paradigm–shifting solutions to this environmental problem. [Comment: One of the challenges of the second sentence is to decide what not to include. In this case, more could be said about what those paradoxes and detriments are, but since the focus here is on the "how" instead of the "what," they have been left out. If those kinds of unidentified details are important enough, there is room to mention them more thoroughly in the third sentence.] Cronon opposes the perspective of wilderness as an idealized, non–human space in order to persuade his readers to live rightly in relationship to nature and embrace the reality that "home" as a welcoming, responsibility–requiring place encompasses both "wilderness" and "civilization." [Comment: Often there is more than one "why," so be on the look out for this as you actively read.] According to his specific identification, scholarly presentation, and publication venue, Cronon’s primary audience includes American environmentalist academics. [Comment: In the later third of this essay, Cronon uses the pronoun "we" to identify himself and his assumed readership. Often authors aren’t this useful in helping to identify an audience.]
Using a Rhetorical Précis to Guide Analysis
Writing a good précis is a lot of work. It takes dedicated time and consideration. But it can be useful in and of itself and productive in the development of additional academic writing. Of course, the most obvious application of a précis is connected to its function as a summary. In academic writing, we summarize sources all the time. Once you have written a précis, you can incorporate some of its sentences or ideas into your writing when you need to quickly account for a text’s argument, content, or purpose.
But a rhetorical précis is even more powerfully useful for writing analysis.
Etymologically, "analysis" comes from the Ancient Greek terms for "throughout" and "loosening." When you analyze something, you deconstruct it, extract its parts, peer inside to see how everything fits together. You thoroughly loosen it in order to understand it better. When you've used a précis to lay out the primary elements of this text (the author; the argument's what, how, and why; and the audience) in front of you, you're ready to move on with your analysis. Analysis of nonfiction texts can take several forms, but three common ones are: evaluation and critique, comparison, and reflection.
Evaluation and Critique
Evaluating a text requires you to use your analysis to consider and critique the strengths and weaknesses of that piece of writing. Look back at the argument and audience and ask yourself some of these questions:
- Is this a persuasive argument for this group of readers?
- How well is the author's argument developed and clarified through the structure of the text?
- Where does the logic of the argument and its supporting evidence cohere or fall apart?
- Do the author’s background, tone, evidence, and assumptions foster credibility?
- Does the piece achieve what the author intended?
Detailed answers—with examples—to any of these or similar questions could generate enough material for a close, analytical evaluation. Make sure that you are connecting your assertions about what works and doesn't work in this text to the author, the argument's development and purpose, and the audience. Make sure that you are looking deeply at how and why various elements of the text and its argument succeed or falter.
Through comparison, you bring together an analysis of more than one text. Start by writing a précis for each piece you have to compare. Then look at each précis side–by–side and ask yourself about how a sentence in one précis relates to the corresponding sentence in the other précis. Here are some questions to guide your thinking:
- Are all texts addressing a parallel idea?
- Are they making similar or different arguments?
- Have they employed similar methods to arrive at their arguments?
- Are they using the same kind of structure to develop those arguments?
- What is different about their intended audiences?
- Is one more or less successful or persuasive than the other?
Let what you identify as being similar and different about these texts guide your comparative analysis.
Reflection provides you with space to analyze a text in light of your experiences, perspectives, and ideas. In this kind of writing, you get to talk about yourself. In a way, a reflective analysis is kind of like a comparative analysis where the second text is you. Look back at that rhetorical précis and ask yourself questions like these, or other questions that connect what you know and have experienced with the text you have read:
- What else have you read or experienced that furthers or complicates the argument made by this text?
- How do you see that these ideas fit into the larger context of what you’ve been studying in this course?
- Why do you have a particular opinion or response towards this piece of writing?
- Moving forward, how can this text, its argument, or its presentation be influential in shaping your thinking or research?
In order to analyze a text, you need to understand key elements of it. Closely reading that text and summarizing it through a rhetorical précis can help you understand it better. In large part, the quality of your analysis will be dependent on the quality of your comprehension. So, give yourself the time you need to read carefully, think deeply, and analyze effectively.
Cronon, William. "The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." Environmental History, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 7–28.
Woodworth, Margaret K. "The Rhetorical Précis." Rhetoric Review, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 156–64.