Writing can obviously be a difficult task for many of us. But, it is the essence of the scientific process; the means by which we communicate and discuss our research and findings. While numerous books deal with academic writing*, we may also discover certain key characteristics of good academic writing in various novels or novellas.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is, without a doubt, a chef d’oeuvre of the 20th century. Not only is this novella fascinating in terms of modern literature, but it also provides guidance for those of us writing papers and doctoral dissertations for academic audiences. Needless to say John Steinbeck was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1962.
First, each word of this novel is strictly necessary. No word is redundant or useless and each has its place and purpose. For example, Steinbeck’s descriptions are sharp and provide readers with everything they need to immerge themselves in the book:
“A water snake slipped along on the pool, its head held up like a little periscope. The reeds jerked slightly in the current. Far off toward the highway a man shouted something, and another man shouted back. The sycamore limbs rustled under a little wind that died immediately.” (Chapter 1)
This short description gives enough content to clearly illustrate the context and allows us to feel as if we are sitting there with Lennie and George at twilight.
While other authors emphasize richness in their descriptions, Steinbeck favors parsimony and sharpness, exactly as academic writing demands and doctoral dissertation should be. You can be sure that an examiner or reader of your dissertation will greatly appreciate precision and sharpness in your writing. Less is more. What matters is precision.
Second, in addition to the strict necessity of each word, Steinbeck shares with us the keys to understanding the psychology of his protagonists. From beginning to end, the reader is given the necessary elements to understand and even anticipate actions and events. When Curley’s wife invites Lenny to touch her hair ─ “She took Lennie’s hand and put it on her head. ‘Feel right aroun’ there an’ see how soft it is.'”(chapter 5)─we know Lennie will “do a real bad thing” because the writer imparted the information we need to deduce what will happen. As we progress through the book we come to understand Lennie’s way of seeing the world and we gain a deep understanding of his psychology. As a result, we simply know the softness of Curley’s hair will trigger “a real bad thing.”
In the same way, a doctoral thesis requires that you share all the keys needed to understand the mechanisms that help explain your results. If a piece of knowledge or a concept suddenly pops up in the text and without being mentioned before (in the literature review for example) then, in a way, you are betraying the expectations of your reader or examiner. As examiners read your discussion section, they simply cannot be confronted with a new topic out of the blue. While it depends on the structure of your thesis, you usually need to provide an examiner with all the necessary elements to bring them onboard and illustrate the logic of your scientific process.
Of Mice and Men is so rich that one would need hundreds of pages to discuss its many attributes. You may no doubt find numerous analyses and dissertations of Steinbeck’s work, which appears on the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Here I simply wanted to highlight the fact that, of the literature I have read so far, this work represents one of the best non-academic examples of how to craft sharp writing and carefully build an argument. These two skills are essential in academic writing and even more so for doctoral dissertations. Furthermore if you are currently writing your dissertation, reading this book will enliven one or two of your evenings and hopefully, help you keep the momentum going.
* See for example Murray and Moore, 2006, The Handbook of Academic Writing: a Fresh Approach, McGraw-Hill Education. Or Hartley J., 2008, Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Handbook; Routledge.