cs492 - Spring 2017

Societal Implications with Computer Science

Assignment 1: Write a precis of a reading.

Due. At the beginning of class Wednesday, 10 May, 2017.

A precis is a short summary of a longer piece of writing. Precis is a French word, naturalized to English. Precis is also the origin of the English word precise. A precis is thus a short summary that captures the precise meaning of a longer document or speech. A precis is normally written to a length given in advance, which is 300 words for this assignment.

You are to write a 300 word precis of a short essay given out in the first class.

The Assignment

  1. Read the essay at least twice. Write a two sentence summary of what you think the writer wants you to know after reading it.
  2. Attend the class on Friday and take part in the discussion of the essay. (Taking part in the discussion earns you marks in the participation part of the course.)
  3. Re-read it carefully, noting the ideas that are central to it. You should find about three to five. (At the same time notice how the ideas are connected to one another.)
  4. Recall in-class discussion that pertained to the central ideas.
  5. You have now acquired the content of your precis. Decide the order in which you want the ideas to appear, and how many words you should give to each. (Some students like to write ideas, connections, and discussion points on filing cards and move them around on the floor to find an order that tells a coherent story.)
  6. Write out the story, keeping track of the words as you go along.
  7. Edit what you have written, removing superfluous words like, "In that case ..." or "It is clear that ..." (I usually write my first draft too long because editing tends to shorten it quite a bit.)
  8. Re-read "Improving your Writing" and re-edit your precis taking those ideas into account.
  9. Format your essay as a PDF. Bring a printed copy to class.

Important. To get a satisfactory mark on this assignment it is necessary to understand the essay and then write an essay of your own using your own words and sentences. If you simply remove sentences from the original essay until you have 300 words you have not written a precis.

Improving your Writing

I typed the title of this section three times. The first time it was "Suggestions for improving your writing"; the second time it was "How to improve your writing". Is the third try better? Why or why not? As these questions suggest, reading your own writing with a sense whether or not it is precise and expressive is essential for improving your writing. Reading the writing of good writers, so as to improve your ear for good writing, is equally essential.

The most common fault of inexperienced writers lies in the content of their writing, that is, what they choose to write. The best advice for remedying it is, "Show, don't tell." In practice, don't tell the reader what to think; describe an object or event that makes the reader find the thought inside themself. As a reader you probably find the preceding sentence a little hard to understand. Why? Too many of its words are abstract; only "reader" can potentially create an image in the reader, and the sentence says nothing about what he or she may be reading. Avoid saying "The structure of the ship was certainly suffering too much damage to endure until the termination of the storm." Say "Wave after wave battered the ship; surely it would sink."

The examples above sound like creative writing: what about expository writing? Consider this actual sentence from a reading: "Every time we innovate in media space to create a new medium we must resolve the problems of the media that preceded it." How about "Facebook, like any new medium, must solve the problem of its predecessors, such as the printing press: how to get users reading." Replacing an abstract word with a concrete one reduces the strain of thinking by building an image in the reader's mind.

In general abstract words are long and uncommon, concrete words short and common. Thus, the abstract advice "Show, don't tell." is easier to grasp in the concrete form "Prefer shorter words to longer ones, common words to uncommon ones." The three word version is so short it's cryptic. Thus, the short words part of the rule contradicts itself when taken too literally, but not when you look for the spirit of the rule. Advice about writing is like that.

What we like as markers

When a marker is in a good mood he or she gives better marks. This little addendum to each assignment gives you some hints as to what the markers for cs492 like.

  1. Precis that are double spaced so we can write comments between the lines.
  2. A count of the words in the precis, which you can do a lot more easily than we can.
  3. Humour.

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