Science Fiction Writer
And for why I continue to use and love WordStar well into the 21st century, see below.
"Sawyer's long post [below] about WordStar is extremely insightful." Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
"A fine word processing program called WordStar. It never crashed, and it never failed, and I loved it immoderately." Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
"WordStar was magnificent. I loved it. It was logical, beautiful, perfect. Compared to it, MS Word is pure madness." Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire
Many science-fiction writers including myself, Roger MacBride Allen, Gerald Brandt, Jeffrey A. Carver, Arthur C. Clarke, David Gerrold, Terence M. Green, James Gunn, Matthew Hughes, Donald Kingsbury, Eric Kotani, Paul Levinson, George R. R. Martin, Vonda McIntyre, Kit Reed, Jennifer Roberson, and Edo van Belkom continue to use WordStar for DOS as our writing tool of choice.
Still, most of us have endured years of mindless criticism of our decision, usually from WordPerfect users, and especially from WordPerfect users who have never tried anything but that program. I've used WordStar, WordPerfect, Word, MultiMate, Sprint, XyWrite, and just about every other MS-DOS and Windows word-processing package, and WordStar is by far my favorite choice for creative composition at the keyboard.
That's the key point: aiding creative composition. To understand how WordStar does that better than other programs, let me start with a little history.
WordStar was first released in 1979, before there was any
standardization in computer keyboards. At that time, many
keyboards lacked arrow keys for cursor movement and special
function keys for issuing commands. Some even lacked such keys
About all you could count on was having a standard QWERTY
typewriter layout of alphanumeric keys and a
Control key. The
Control key is a specialized shift key. When depressed
simultaneously with an alphabetic key, it causes the keyboard to
generate a specific command instruction, rather than the letter.
The control codes are named
Ctrl-Z (there are
a few punctuation keys that can generate control codes, too).
Control codes are frequently indicated in text by preceding the
letter with a caret, like so:
WordStar's original designers, Seymour Rubinstein and Rob
Barnaby, selected five control codes to be prefixes for bringing
up additional menus of functions:
^O for On-screen functions;
for Quick cursor functions;
^P for Print functions;
^K for block
and file functions; and
^J for help.
Now, the first three of these are alphabetically mnemonic. The
^J, might at first glance seem to be arbitrary
choices. They aren't. Look at a typewriter keyboard. You'll
see that for a touch typist, the two strongest fingers of the
right hand rest over
^K on the home typing row. WordStar
recognizes that the most-often-used functions should be the
easiest to physically execute.
To serve as arrow keys for moving the cursor up, left, right, or
down, WordStar adopted
^X. Again, looking at a
typewriter keyboard makes the logic of this plain. These four
keys are arranged in a diamond under the left hand:
Such positional, as opposed to alphabetic, mnemonics form a large
part of the WordStar interface. Additional cursor-movement
commands are clustered around the
^F, on the home typing row, move the cursor left and right
^Z, to the left of the cursor-up and
cursor-down commands, scroll the screen up and down by single
^C, to the right of the cursor-up and cursor-down
commands, scroll the screen up and down a page at a time (a
"page" in the computer sense of a full screen of text).
^Q, the aforementioned quick-cursor-movement menu prefix, extends
the power of this diamond. Just as
^X move the
cursor up, left, right, and down by single characters,
^QX move it all the way to the top, left, right, or
bottom of the screen.
^W scrolls up one line;
^QW scrolls up
^Z scrolls down one line;
^QZ scrolls down
continuously. And since
^C take you to the top and bottom
of the screen,
^QC take you to the top and bottom of the
document. There are many more
^Q commands, but I think you can
see from this sampling that there is an underlying logic to the
WordStar interface, something sorely lacking in many other
programs particularly WordPerfect.
Now, for many of these functions there are dedicated keys on IBM
PC keyboards. WordStar allows you to use these, if you're so
inclined. But touch-typists find that using the WordStar
Control-key commands is much more efficient, because they can be
typed from the home row without hunting for special keys
elsewhere on the keyboard. Because of this, many applications,
including dBase, SuperCalc, SideKick, CompuServe's TAPCIS and
OzCis, Genie's Aladdin, Xtree Pro, and even Microsoft's own editor
included with MS-DOS 5.0 and above, have adopted some or all of
the WordStar interface.
Some keyboards have the
Control key to the left of the letter
A. This makes using WordStar commands very simple. Other
keyboards instead have
CapsLock next to the
A and place
Control key below the left
Shift key, making WordStar
commands a bit of a stretch. Because of this, WordStar comes
with a utility called SWITCH.COM to optionally swap the functions
Control keys. One of the problems with
other word-processing programs is that many commands can only
easily be issued through function and dedicated cursor keys, and
the locations of these keys changes radically from keyboard to
keyboard (for instance, function keys are sometimes arrayed as
two columns of five on the left-hand side of the keyboard and
sometimes as a continuous row across the top of the keyboard;
cursor keys are sometimes clustered in a diamond and sometimes
laid out in an inverted-T shape; on laptop computers you may have
to press a special
Fn key in combination with the arrow keys to
PgUp and other functions, making using these programs an
exercise in contortion). But all one has to do to make
any keyboard an optimal WordStar keyboard is run the
Control switcher, if necessary. The locations of the
other keys are irrelevant, because you don't need them for
On the other hand, WordPerfect's interface forces touch typists
to constantly move their hands from the home typing row, slowing
them down. To issue a WordPerfect command, you must first press
a function key, either separately, or simultaneously with a
Alt key. Then, for many functions, you
must select a sub-function. Now that your hands have moved to
the bank of function keys, can you select your sub-function using
them as well? You cannot. Rather, you must next reposition your
hands to the numeric keys and select your sub-function by number.
Finally, you must re-orient your hands on the home row before
continuing typing (recent versions of WordPerfect attempt to
smooth out this tortuous interface, but it's still difficult to
Now, I'm a big fan of the WordStar
Control-key interface: for
text applications, it lets me interact with my computer more
efficiently than any other interface I've yet seen. However, I
don't think it's this interface that's got me hooked, at least
not at the keystroke level. I've written published reviews of
all major DOS word processors, and I've concluded that there are
other specific strengths that bring me back to WordStar time and
Let me speak generally for a moment. I've concluded that there are two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing. One is the long-hand manuscript page. The other is the typewritten page. Most word processors have decided to emulate the second and, at first glance, that would seem to be the logical one to adopt. But, as a creative writer, I am convinced that the long-hand page is the better metaphor.
Consider: On a long-hand page, you can jump back and forth in your document with ease. You can put in bookmarks, either actual paper ones, or just fingers slipped into the middle of the manuscript stack. You can annotate the manuscript for yourself with comments like "Fix this!" or "Don't forget to check these facts" without there being any possibility of you missing them when you next work on the document. And you can mark a block, either by circling it with your pen, or by physically cutting it out, without necessarily having to do anything with it right away. The entire document is your workspace.
On a typewritten page, on the other hand, you are forced to deal with the next sequential character. Your thoughts are focussed serially on the typing of the document. If you're in the middle of a line halfway down page 7, your only easy option is to continue on that line. To go backwards to check something is difficult, to put in a comment that won't show when your document is read by somebody else is impossible, and so on. Typing is a top-down, linear process, not at all conducive to the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at.
Now, a word processor that uses the typewriter metaphor WordPerfect is one might be ideal for low-level secretarial work: proceeding top-down through a document that has been created in content and structure by somebody else. But for one who must start with absolutely nothing and create, from scratch, a coherent document with complex and subtle structures, the long-hand-page metaphor is the way to go.
^Q (Quick cursor movement) and
^K (block) commands
give me more of what I used to have when I wrote in longhand than
any other product does. WordStar's powerful suite of cursor
commands lets me fly all over my manuscript, without ever getting
lost. That's because WordStar is constantly keeping track of
where I've been and where I'm likely to want to go.
take me to the beginning of the marked block;
^QK will take me to
^QV will take me to where the marked block was moved
^QP will take me to my previous cursor position. And, just
as I used to juggle up to ten fingers inserted into various
places in my paper manuscript, WordStar provides me with ten
bookmarks, set with
^K9, and ten commands to jump to
Other WordStar cursor-movement commands, some of which were mentioned earlier, make life extraordinarily easy (left and right end of line, top and bottom of screen, top and bottom of document, forward to specified character, backwards to specified characters all touch-typable, all issued without ever taking my eyes off the screen). And its robust find commands run circles around WordPerfect's (for example, WordPerfect can't find a single word without also finding that same string of characters if it's embedded in another word).
If I want to make a note to myself, WordStar lets me simply type it in my document. WordStar will not print a line beginning with double periods, like so:
.. check date of birth
However, there's no way I can miss such a comment when I re-edit the document. Until recently, WordPerfect didn't allow that again, it tripped on the typewritten-page metaphor: if you put something in the document, it assumes you must want it in the final printout. (Hidden comments, another feature provided by both WordStar and WordPerfect, don't provide this same functionality, although they do have their uses.)
The typewritten-page metaphor is a machine-in-control situation: you must do what the machine wants you to do. Block marking is a perfect example. In WordPerfect, if I want to mark a block, I am forced to think through a serial sequence of steps, and execute them in turn. Now, that's fine for straight secretarial work, but when one is creating at the keyboard, one wants to capture the most fleeting of thoughts, the most complex of ideas, before they evaporate into the ether, lost for good. The human-machine interface must let me stop and get a thought down, not force me to hang on until the computer is ready for me to go back to thinking.
WordPerfect requires that I decide whether I want to cut or copy a block, then immediately mark the beginning of the block, then immediately mark the end of the block, then immediately position the cursor at where I want the block to go, then immediately move the block, and then find my way back to the place where I was originally working. From the moment I decide I might, perhaps, want to do something with a block of text to the moment I actually finish that operation, WordPerfect is in control, dictating what I must do.
WordStar, with its long-hand-page metaphor, says, hey, do whatever you want whenever you want to. This is a good spot to mark the beginning of a block? Fine. What would you like to do next? Deal with the block? Continue writing? Use the thesaurus?
After another half hour of writing, I can say, ah hah!,
this is where I want to end that block. And two hours later I
can say, and this is where that block should go. I'm in
control, not the program. That's clearly more powerful, more
intuitive, and more flexible than any other method of text
manipulation I've yet seen implemented in a word processor. That
WordStar lets me have separate marked blocks in each of its
editing windows multiplies that power substantially: imagine
doing a cut and paste job between two versions of a paper
document, but being told that you could only have one piece cut
out at a time. Madness! Yet that's what WordPerfect, Microsoft
Word, and others would force you to do. (In WordStar 7.0, you
can even, in essence, have two marked blocks per window, toggling
between them with the "mark previous block" command,
Over the years, it's become clear to me that writers work in unique ways. Little things make a big difference to how effectively they can interface with their machines. WordStar provides a vast suite of customizability options hundreds of things ranging from which specific punctuation characters are jumped over when moving the cursor by words, through how much help to provide the user, to whether the inches/columns indicator in the status line should update instantly as you type, or (in case you find that visually distracting) should wait quietly until you pause for a length of time you specify before updating. It's important that the writing tool adapt to the writer, not the other way around. WordStar is strong because it can fit me like a comfortable old shoe, and then make itself over completely to fit somebody else just as well.
Finally, to come back to the keyboard interface, I think WordStar is the least modal word processor I have ever used. On long-hand paper, writing and editing are one fluid task: there's no barrier to discourage you from switching between adding new material and modifying existing material. On a typed page, these tasks are quite distinct, especially with non-electronic typewriters. To change a word is a completely different spectrum of activities, and therefore a completely different mindset, from simply adding new words.
Many word-processing programs hark back to the decidedly modal days of Liquid Paper: they have you input new material from the main typing area, but for editing make you move your hands from that area to the cursor pad, the function keys, or a mouse, and then step through layers of menus (as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word do) or switch to a command line (as XyWrite and Nota Bene do). These typewriter-metaphor programs compartmentalize writing and editing in an unnatural fashion. The human mind does not distinguish between these activities in any gross way; neither should the program.
WordStar's adoption of the long-hand-page metaphor provides its
strength in this area, too. On a WordStar-friendly keyboard (one
Control adjacent to the
A key, or one that has been
remapped using the SWITCH.COM utility mentioned earlier),
changing between writing and editing modes is as simple as
pivoting one's left pinkie. It's effortless and does not cause a
switching of mental gears. The distinction between the modes is
no more distracting than the lifting of ball-point from paper to
reposition one's pen. Writing and revising are a continuum.
WordStar supports that, whereas, again, competing programs
demand that I adapt to their method of doing things, instead of
the other way around.
For me, it's clear: WordStar offers a more productive approach at its most fundamental design level than does its competition.
The foregoing analysis originally appeared on The WordStar Forum of the CompuServe Information Service, where it seemed to strike a responsive chord. Herewith some excerpts from the responses posted there:
"Thanks, Robert, for a very insightful analysis of why I, neither a professional writer nor professional editor, like WordStar."
"Exactly so, Rob. It is a monumentally frustrating and distracting experience to have to think about dealing with the machine when I am cogitating on the words I want to write, the thoughts I am trying to capture. For that process, which is quite fundamentally different than page-formatting, WordStar is utterly unobtrusive, passive until I tell it to be otherwise, and completely transparent."
"Your analysis gave an explanation to my feelings. Whenever lawyers ask me what I like about using WordStar, my response has always been that the expressing of words and thoughts translate effortlessly into the printed page."
"Thank you for analyzing and articulating these fundamental advantages of WordStar. I've never seen such an insightful and on-target exposition of this topic anywhere."
"The typewriter-vs.-manuscript metaphor is brilliant. Although a pretty good touch typist since high school days, I was never able to compose at the typewriter. After every line or two, I want to go back and edit what I've just composed, and the typewriter just isn't a very good way to do that. When I first started WordStar on a CP/M machine, what impressed me most was that it enabled me to compose at the keyboard very much like the way I would compose on the written page, but with the productivity advantage of a `typewriter.' I've never had quite the same feeling about any other word processor."
Robert J. Sawyer, a former sysop of CompuServe's WordStar Forum, won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995, and the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2003. He is the author of 25 novels, all written with WordStar: Golden Fleece, Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Frameshift, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, FlashForward, Calculating God, Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, Mindscan, Rollback, Wake, Watch, Wonder, Triggers, Red Planet Blues, Quantum Night, The Oppenheimer Alternative, and The Downloaded. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name.
Using WordStar under modern versions of Windows
Using WordStar's ProFinder utility for research
Rob's system for getting WordStar 7.0 to preview pages at high resolution with any graphics card
Still using WordStar 3.0 or 3.3? Here's how you can customize the keyboard
Rob's review of Borland's Sprint: The Word Processor from 1988
Rob's sixth "On Writing" column, outlining tricks you can
do with your word processor whatever it may be to help you with your writing.
Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.