SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > WordStar
A Writer's Word Processor
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright 1990 and 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. This essay may be freely reproduced or reposted, so long as it is reproduced in its entirety and is unaltered in any way.
"Sawyer's long post about WordStar is extremely insightful." Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
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.
AN INTERFACE DESIGNED FOR TOUCH TYPISTS
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
WordStar's original designers, Seymour Rubinstein and Rob
Barnaby, selected five control codes to be prefixes for bringing
up additional menus of functions:
Now, the first three of these are alphabetically mnemonic. The
To serve as arrow keys for moving the cursor up, left, right, or
down, WordStar adopted
Such positional, as opposed to alphabetic, mnemonics form a large
part of the WordStar interface. Additional cursor-movement
commands are clustered around the
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
Some keyboards have the
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
THE LONG-HAND PAGE METAPHOR
Now, I'm a big fan of the WordStar
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.
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:
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
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."
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 24 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, and The Oppenheimer Alternative. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name.
More Good Reading
Rob's system for getting WordStar 7.0 to preview pages at high resolution with any graphics card
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.