The Writer's Software Companion, a product of Novation Learning Systems, is designed to serve as a "tireless writing coach" with "all the writing and teaching credentials you could ask for." Designed by Nancy Kress, Writer's Digest columnist and award-winning author of Beggars in Spain and other books, and Terry Boothman, an expert in computer based learning systems, The Writer's Software Companion is a solid product for the beginning to intermediate writer, though authors beyond the early learning stage will likely find such software (and perhaps all learning material of this kind) a bit too basic.
Installation of The Writer's Software Companion was painless, taking up about 14 megabytes (I was using a downloaded review copy-- the CD-ROM comes with a number of shareware packages that are also available on the net) on my hard drive and about ten minutes of my time. From that point on I was up and running with no need to even look at the documentation or on-line help, though the latter is extensive and well-written. The interface is very logical and the structure intuitive, presumably thanks to the capable work of Terry Boothman.
At the heart of The Writer's Software Companion are sixty-seven of Nancy Kress' columns on fiction writing that were published in Writer's Digest over a period of five years. The columns are divided into twelve sections such as "Dialogue and Plotting," "Point of View," "Publishing" and so on. Upon entering a given section, the user has a choice of a number of options: reading the essays themselves, skimming summaries of the key points of the essays or looking at even more condensed checklists of what one should have learned from the material. This really is the most useful part of the package, and if you are a writer that finds the best learning material in Writer's Digest magazine to be useful, then you will doubtless find the essays to be a treasure-trove of information. Nancy Kress is a fine writer and teacher, presenting even complicated material clearly and concisely. Once you have digested the columns in a section, you can read over "Quick Studies," which show problems related to the material in the section and their remedies, and basically present the key points in a different form.
At this point you are ready to delve into the original material of this package in the form of examples and exercises. The examples are useful for checking one's understanding of the essays and seeing how the material is to be used in the form of real world writing. The "Dialogue" section, for example, presents samples of dialogue by Raymond Carver, Ursula LeGuin and John Steinbeck (among others) that illustrate the key points made in the accompanying essay. All of the samples are well chosen, and the brief explanations of them clear, resulting in a concise and effective learning tool.
Some of the exercises are also effective. The "Literary Issues" section includes an exercise in story analysis: you read the example, then click on various highlighted passages and identify their function. This works fairly well, since little real interaction is involved. The first exercise in the "Dialogue" section also works, since it consists of indicating whether or not a piece of sample dialogue works or not, and the program responds with an explanation of why. But the second dialogue exercise illustrates the shortcomings of this kind of "interactive" software: the user is prompted to write a piece of dialogue in a certain personae of his or her choosing (burly truck driver, teenage boy, etc.) and then click a button to see their own sample. The artificial nature of the interaction becomes obvious it doesn't really matter what your response sounds like because there is no way for the computer to judge it! This not a flaw in The Writer's Software Companion itself, but in any attempt to replace true teacher-pupil dialogue with a computer simulation.
I consider most of the other features of this package to be either incidental or of little use for most writers. There is a facility called "My Notes" in each section which allows you to jot down reactions and notes and the like, but since it is only accessible from within the program and notes from each section are completely separate from one another, I found it more productive to use a word processor. There is also an "Introductory Interview" which asks you a number of multiple choice questions and then generates a customized little essay with relevant items to think about in your personal situation, though I found this to be too general to be of any help. Finally, there is a dictionary of 5000 character names-- could that possibly be useful to anyone?
The Writer's Software Companion is the best software package I have seen for the budding author. Instead of providing plot skeletons and pushing one to finish a piece (which results in very little learning that can be applied outside of that software package and stories that are not salable), it focuses on learning the craft and absorbing lessons which will be applicable every time one sits down in front of their word processor. For the beginning writer, the collection of essays by Nancy Kress alone are worth the price of the software, and the format in which it is presented-- despite shortcomings that are common to all computer based learning systems-- will likely give him or her many hours of useful reading and practice. Intermediate to advanced authors, however, would be better off spending their money on a few more good books of short stories for their library.