At the beginning of 1991, with the introduction of the third edition of The St. Martin's Guide to Writing, came also the announcement of the introduction of the St. Martin's MINDWRITER/DESCANT: AN INVENTION AND REVISION PROGRAM. Because I had been using an earlier edition of this textbook, planned to adopt the new one, and was hoping to begin using computers in composition as soon as possible, I eagerly awaited the arrival of MINDWRITER/DESCANT. And, when I received it in the summer of 1991, I had the opportunity to use it for teaching both courses of the first-year composition sequence during the summer.
Overall, MINDWRITER works well in conjunction with the text and encourages students to generate ideas and materials for their papers; I believe, at the least, it offers another avenue of help for students in improving their writing. It may offer even more.
The St. Martin's Guide to Writing includes ten units called "Writing Activities" that are each further broken down into three units: "Readings," "A Guide to Writing," and "A Writer at Work." These units detail a number of invention activities and writing assignments meant to generate ideas, content and organizational solutions, as well as many questions for peer review that MINDWRITER/DESCANT has adapted for computer use. The sections, already helpful in their text form have even more appeal to students in electronic form because the students can easily transport their work into a draft of the essay in progress.
MINDWRITER/DESCANT has an easy-to-use interface, providing clear instructions, graphics, and pull-down menus that allow movement into any series of prompts a student might desire. It also offers a printing option at every stage and reminds the student to print at crucial points in the process. The online "help" explanations are clear, and a novice computer user can begin working the program immediately. I had a few students who had never looked at a computer monitor before these classes had begun, and within one hour they were able to operate the program with some facility.
MINDWRITER/DESCANT, as its name suggests, hopes to generate, in the most basic process methodology, the ideas, content, and organizational pattern for a paper project as well as the questions to help revise the paper toward a final draft. The program asks the questions and provides students the space for their answers. Students would often use the computer for reading the questions and answering them, while they would open the book beside them for reference to the more complete lists of examples that the book provides. Chapter 4 of MINDWRITER, called "Writing Profiles," for example, an early prompt asks the student to list people the student might profile. Because the software does not list examples, students would often open the text to consult the examples it provides. The text and the software complement one another this way. The software does not clutter itself up with too many examples and explanations; the textbook does not clutter itself up with answers it cannot provide.
The most useful aspects of MINDWRITER/DESCANT, it seems, are in the invention and organizational series of prompts. Consistently, the students used these sections more often than others. The questions are presented one at a time, are clear and direct, and because they are presented with the immediacy of a simple question and a blank space demanding an answer, the students feel compelled to respond. Because there are often many questions (as many as 16 in one case) within one aspect of a writing problem, students can select those that are most applicable to their topic. In many cases, the questions appear useful.
The menus inside each "Writing Activity" are the same
but lead to a group of questions specifically defined for the
particular activity. In chapter 6, "Taking a Position,"
the first menu offers the following choices:
Under "Invention and Planning" is another menu that
The most extensive array of questions is within "Exploring a Topic." This series of prompts asks students to perform activities such as: define a topic and within five minutes list the topic's pros and cons, list reasons for the pros, list reasons for the cons, take a tentative position, analyze purpose and audience, revise your position, list reasons to appeal to a particular audience, list counterarguments, develop each reason, and list counterarguments possible to refute. The prompts are quite extensive, and if a student can work through them with some thoroughness, the topic will have been considered in some depth.
The main advantage to using this program is that it demands students begin generating ideas and forming a topic sooner in the writing process than they would otherwise do in the classroom. It seems students are too easily distracted by the proximity of, or interest in, others who are nearby when trying to generate topics and ideas on a blank piece of paper. The classroom often seems a social place, somehow not conducive to contemplation. For some reason, the computers, or the questions arranged on the computer screen, seem to demand more attention from the students, and individuals begin the writing process sooner. And that fact results in better papers.
Because the "Invention and Planning" sections of the program are so large and useful, I often found myself skipping the "Reading and Revising" series of prompts. Instead, I would revert to using the series of questions in the textbooks and ask students to bring their drafts to classroom. Here, I found that the social atmosphere of a classroom helps the revision process. And besides, I could not find a way to arrange the timing of a computer-assisted revision workshop into the class schedule. However, some students used the revision prompts on their own to prepare later drafts of their papers and certainly benefited from the process.
Overall, I found MINDWRITER/DESCANT quite helpful, and believe it developed better papers. I am now teaching a composition class without the use of computers, and I notice particularly the difficulty students seem to have in generating ideas and topics for their papers. Their distractions have returned and many have difficulty making decisions on a topic until panic sets in.
In the sense that the program provides a useful and clear set
of prompts, it operates smoothly. In the sense that the computer
format demands a more immediate response from the student, MINDWRITER/DESCANT
seems to help the writer and the writing instructor achieve more
James H. Wilson teaches in the Department of English
Language and Literature at the University of New Mexico.
Axelrod, R. B., & C. R. Cooper. (1991). The St. Martin's Guide to Writing (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
MINDWRITER/DESCANT: AN INVENTION AND REVISION PRGRAM. (1991).
[Computer Program]. New York: St. Martin's Press.