Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2019

What Should You Know about Writing a Critical Précis (With a Sample Essay)

A critical précis is commonly assigned in academic programs in the humanities and liberal arts and is a type of expository essay that summarizes another text. Its purpose is to inform your reader—who is assumed to have not read the text in question—what the text is about, details regarding its author and publication, and any major elements or plot points that summarize it.

It might contain quotes from the other text being summarized but these should be limited to short passages and it should be carefully noted that it is a quote to avoid plagiarism. In short, a critical précis should include the following:

  • The main ideas presented in the text
  • Any arguments that are present in the text, mentioned by the author, and the outcome of those arguments
  • A precise summary of what occurs in the text (this is often limited to one paragraph and should be a part of the introduction of your critical précis)
A critical précis is commonly assigned in academic programs in the humanities and liberal arts.
A critical précis is commonly assigned in academic programs in the humanities and liberal arts and is a type of expository essay that summarizes another text.

How long should my critical précis essay be?

Since the purpose of the critical précis is to briefly summarize and provide information about another text, its length should be between 400 and 1200 words. The length of the text used will also determine how long your critical précis might be. For example, a short story critical précis might be right at 400 words, while a book might require a critical précis closer to the 1200-word range. There are no hard and fast rules related to the word count of a critical précis essay; however, your professor might require a minimum and/or maximum word count for the assignment based on his or her preferences.

Do I include personal opinions in my critical précis essay?

Since this is not an analytical or reflection essay, the writer shouldn't include any personal opinions. The author's tone and mood should be preserved, allowing the reader to get a good overall glimpse of the text. Also keep in mind that the critical précis is different than a book review and should not be your review of the text. The writer should not use first-person pronouns and should limit the point of view to an objective, third-person point of view.

How do I structure my critical précis essay?

Since a critical précis is an expository essay, you will need to have an introduction, body and conclusion, just like with other types of essays. Also, as with other essays, it's important to create an outline before you begin writing and return to that outline often to ensure you're staying on the right track and that your writing is logical. Without first creating an outline, you run the risk of writing a critical précis that jumps around, is structured incorrectly, and generally confusing for your reader.

Introduction

In the opening paragraph, you need to provide information about the work you are analyzing, including the author, title of the work, genre, intended audience and date of publication. If there is something unique about this work, either in the author's career or in popular reception, the introduction would be a good place to do that, as well. Just keep in mind that whatever information you include should be objective rather than simply your opinion. If you think a certain book was the best the author has ever written, that should not be included in the critical précis. However, if the book was the highest grossing book the author has ever written, that is certainly information that could (and should) be included.

Body

The body of the critical précis should offer information about important points concerning the analyzed text. Each paragraph of the body should focus on something specific, such as plot points, setting, characters, or an argument the author is attempting to make (if relevant). The easiest way to make sure you are following this rule is to create a topic sentence for each body paragraph and then ensure that the entire paragraph has something to do with that topic sentence. This, of course, can be done as you are outlining the draft of your critical précis paper.

Conclusion

The conclusion is the paragraph where you restate your thesis statement or the main idea of the author of the analyzed text.

Sample critical précis essay

"The Masque of the Red Death" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer, editor, and literary critic. It was published in 1842 in Graham's Magazine under the original title of "The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy" and is part of the Gothic fiction genre. While it has been often analyzed as a metaphor for the inevitability of death, it also contains many standard elements of Gothic fiction and was directly influenced by the first Gothic novel written by Horace Walpole entitled The Castle of Otranto. Although Poe was one of the first American writers to be able to live on writing alone, he struggled to do so, despite the mass appeal and popularity of short stories like "The Masque of the Red Death." It still remains to be one of his best-known and most beloved works, and was published within a decade of his death.

The setting of Poe's story is a castle owned by the wealthy Prince Prospero, who is described by Poe as "happy and dauntless and sagacious." He, along with 1,000 other nobles, attempt to escape a plague that is sweeping the land by walling themselves in the castle and holding a masquerade ball. There, Prospero leads his guests through seven colored rooms, the first six of which are blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet. The last room is black with light illuminating the room through stained glass that is "a deep blood color". The last room also holds an ebony clock that chimes every hour, causing the people to stop dancing and the orchestra to stop playing.

At midnight, another reveler appears wearing a dark, blood splattered cloak. At first, the guests are shocked that he would dare to wear such a costume, especially one resembling a funeral shroud. He passes through the six rooms until the Prince chases him with a dagger, angered that he would interrupt his masquerade party and make his guests uncomfortable. After the chase, they both arrive at the final and seventh room. When the mysterious figure faces him, the Prince falls dead. The other revelers are enraged and remove the figure's costume by force, only to find that there is nothing underneath and to fall dead themselves.

While the descriptive and horrific nature of the story lends itself to an allegorical analysis, it can be taken at face value and read as a simple Gothic horror tale. The enclosed halls of the castle, the mysterious and macabre, the rich and luxurious décor, and the obsession with death are all common elements in the Gothic fiction genre and appeal to audiences who are looking for a chilling story to read with or without the didacticism involved in finding a greater moral to the story.

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