Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A Song of DOS and WordStar

with 39 comments


I was recently delighted to discover that George R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, still writes all of his novels on a DOS computer running WordStar. Martin isn’t a complete technophobe—he maintains an active blog, much to the dismay of fans who might prefer that he spend all of his time on other projects—but remains faithful to what he calls “the Duesenberg of word processing software (very old, but unsurpassed).” In itself, this isn’t all that surprising. Writers like to stick with what they know, either out of habit or superstition, and in particular, science fiction and fantasy authors have a tendency to persist in writing on antiquated systems, even as they allow their imaginations to roam far into the future. And although you don’t need to be a political conservative to be conservative about word processing, the two sometimes go hand in hand. Another prominent WordStar fan was the late William F. Buckley, Jr. who, when asked about his preference, said: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”

I’m particularly pleased to see WordStar singled out, because that’s the program I used to write my first novel. At the time, I was thirteen years old, and in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I pounded out a science fiction novel heavily influenced by Dune and the work of Orson Scott Card, about a religious matriarchy on a watery planet populated by intelligent fish. The computer I used was the IBM clone in my parents’ office, and I still get a little misty when I recall its clunky monitor—white on black, with each letter composed of visible pixels—and the mysteries of navigating its operating system. I also wrote fragments of stories on an even more ancient “portable” computer that weighed about twenty pounds and resided for about a year on the desk in my bedroom. It didn’t have a hard drive, but it had a keyboard and amber display, and that was all I needed. (All of what I wrote there, sadly, has been lost forever, and if it still exists at all, it’s on a floppy disk that would require considerable archaeological ingenuity to read.)

George R.R. Martin

Like most of us, I’ve since moved on to Word, but I can understand the impulse to remain loyal to what you find familiar: I wrote my first novel as an adult on Word 4.0, and resisted making any upgrades for a long time. (I still think the latest version has too many bells and whistles, but I’ve managed to get used to it.) Part of this can be chalked up to sentimentality: just as many of us tend to believe that popular music peaked around the time we got our first girlfriend or boyfriend, writers tend to cling to whatever tool or system they used at the time of their first great success. But there’s a practical element to it as well. Much of writing, as I’ve said many times before, boils down to habit, and writers are rightly nervous about upsetting the intricate balance of routines and rituals that they’ve developed over the years. Even the most productive writer knows that he’s one bad morning away from the hell of writer’s block, and it makes sense to persist in whatever works, when we’re surrounded by a universe of doubtful alternatives.

And it’s possible that these writers are on to something. I once asked Stanley Schmidt, the legendary former editor of Analog, why he continued to write acceptance and rejection slips on a typewriter, rather than a computer, and his answer was simple: it’s faster. With a typewriter, you just roll in a fresh sheet of paper, type the message, and slide it into the envelope the author has hopefully provided, and you don’t need to worry about saving and printing. WordStar benefits from a similar simplicity. You aren’t distracted by fonts or anything more than the most rudimentary formatting, and you don’t need to worry about how the text will look on the screen: like the Model T Ford, WordStar will show you any color you like, as long as it’s black. Ultimately, it’s just you and the story, and if it isn’t working, there’s no way to fool yourself otherwise. Most of us, of course, will continue to write on a piece of technology far too advanced for our real needs. But in the end, the words are the stars.

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2013 at 9:52 am

39 Responses

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  1. The distraction-free environment of some of these early programs is great. WordPerfect 5.1 (one of the greatest programs every written) presented you with an empty screen but for a few words in the bottom right. No menus, no wiggly red underlines or little helpers popping up. Just you and the text. All the power was there if you needed it, but it did not get in your way. So much so that there are a host of modern programs attempting to reproduce that sort of feel. WordGrinder, WriteRoom, WriteMonkey, DarkRoom. I especially like the green on black you can get with some of them. Just like an IBM XT from 1985. Not that my family could afford one until long after 1985…

    Darren Goossens

    April 18, 2013 at 6:02 am

  2. I’ll need to check out some of those programs. Unfortunately, I think I’m hooked on Times New Roman…


    April 20, 2013 at 11:53 am

  3. It’s not about the distraction free writing environment, though. Not at all. Wordstar is unsurpassed in how you can move about the text and edit the text without your fingers venturing far from the home row. It has some seriously powerful features for writing that never made it into wordprocessing software designed for printing and WYSIWYG. Any writer who learned to depend on those features would be lost in modern programs, save a few unusual ones that kept to the old ways. Never assume that just because something’s newer it’s better. While that’s usually true, it’s not always true. The paradigm of what business offices needed won out over what long form writers needed.

    David Alastair Hayden

    June 15, 2013 at 2:42 am

  4. That’s an excellent point—thanks for posting!


    June 16, 2013 at 2:01 pm

  5. I’m a bit nerdy and obsessed about text editors and typewriters. It’s my thing.

    David Alastair Hayden

    June 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  6. You mention not being able to access stories written in childhood and save to floppy disk. They sell ‘floppy disk-to-USB’ devices. A google shopping search of ‘floppy to usb’ should bring some up, at around $20-$30 bucks. A friend needed one recently to use old research equipment.


    May 11, 2014 at 5:12 am

  7. That’s an enticing idea, actually. Now for the low-tech but still daunting task of digging those disks out of my parents’ garage…


    May 11, 2014 at 6:44 am

  8. what i loved most about wordstar was the levels of help. you could have maximum help showing keyboard short cuts taking up 1/3 of screen for newbies, about a 1/5 for those familiar and no help whatsoever for gurus leaving maximum space for text entry.

  9. I remember that, too! It’s a feature that could stand to be imitated.


    May 11, 2014 at 7:08 am

  10. I abandoned Windows for free Mint Linux (KDE) over a decade ago. I write mostly in Abiword though I’ve played with Schrivner, FocusWriter and Storybook. I am completing my notes and will begin organizing my thoughts and putting a story together soon. I don’t know if I will write the story in Abiword or try something more involved like Storybook. LibreOffice is super too but for my needs might be too much just like MS Office which I actively avoid. MS Office is far too involved For me these days.

    Check out Abiword – it is free and multi-platform so it will run on Windows. There is also a PotableApps version which I rely on when I am away from my own computer and tablet/keyboard. I currently have about 500 pages of notes in Abiword. I write using the native ABW file format but Abiword will also do MSoffice formats and a ton of more obscure formats.


    May 11, 2014 at 7:20 am

  11. I totally think that software companies often release new versions that are not necessarily better than the old versions but they need to release new versions to generate revenue. See Windows 8. I find none of it’s new features compelling – and honestly some parts are irritating compared to Win 7 which is simply WinXP with alot of the security holes fixed up. But Microsoft needs cash flow to stay in business.

    Also:used the newest version of Corel WordPerfect recently. I love it just as much as I used to way back when in the 1990s. And it is only $65 compared to MSoffice which is multiple times more expensive.


    May 11, 2014 at 7:26 am

  12. Joe – your Linux zealotry is not particularly relevant here. Surely you can find a more appropriate outlet for your hate of Microsoft?


    May 11, 2014 at 7:33 am

  13. @Joe: Thanks for the tip, although I suspect I’ve used Word too long to switch comfortably to anything else. And good luck with the novel!


    May 11, 2014 at 7:43 am

  14. @joeaverager – you mean the same Microsoft Office that costs $100 per year, allows you to install on 5 PCs, 5 mobile devices, gives you 60 minutes of Skype world calling per month, 20 extra GB of storage on OneDrive and comes with Word, Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint, Access, InfoPath, OneNote, Lync, Project and Publisher?

    Yeah, a $65 dollar Linux word processor is so much better.


    May 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

  15. I still believe in using Darkroom on windows for all of my writing. Then I transfer it to Word and format it if necessary.


    May 11, 2014 at 8:29 am

  16. I’ve heard good things about Dark Room—I may need to check it out one of these days.


    May 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

  17. So this whole article is basically an excuse to allow the author tell us about his first novel.

    May 11, 2014 at 9:07 am

  18. Back in the early 80s, I used WordStar in college and I loved it. But, moving from a typewriter to the processing of words on a computer, how could I not? The way I remember it now, WordStar was bare bones but was able to get formatting that typewriters could not. Bold, italics, no problem. WordPerfect, however, was a vast improvement over WordStar. WordPerfect could do it all. If you needed a table of authorities or a table of contents, WordPerfect could do them perfectly. An index of words and phrases at the end of your document was also fairly easy. Footnotes, endnotes, whatever your little heart desired. Back in the day we were able to create quite elaborate word processing projects. Not quite as easy to accomplish these days, though the Internet has pretty much changed everything for the better.


    May 11, 2014 at 9:11 am

  19. Just use mcedit on linux… It’s free!


    May 11, 2014 at 9:37 am

  20. @Gary: The nice thing about being a writer these days is the wide range of resources available if you’re willing to venture beyond Word—there’s really a writing platform for every taste.


    May 11, 2014 at 10:32 am

  21. Another good alternative for a distraction-free environment is Scrivener. It’s a little pricey (50 dollars, US), but it was designed for writers and so has some nice options for scenes, outlines, &c. . I use a typewriter font in the distraction-free environment when writing the messy, lower-pressure first draft.


    May 11, 2014 at 10:57 am

  22. Joe — You’ve used a Linux Mint for over a decade, when the first version came out in 2006? Neat trick.


    May 11, 2014 at 1:42 pm

  23. @michaeldwilson: I’ve been tempted by Scrivener, but I’ve since decided that I’m a little too attached to my current working routine:


    May 11, 2014 at 3:48 pm

  24. Thanks for the article. For text-related work, DOS was far better than Windows or even Mac OSx. It was simply faster and more efficient. And the programs were terrific. From my experience, the best program ever created was the brilliant outliner called GrandView. Its many features have yet to be duplicated by any single outlining program. I wrote a blog post about GrandView several years ago:

    Steve Zeoli

    May 12, 2014 at 6:10 am

  25. One of the strengths of Wordstar was that it didn’t require use of function keys; every command could be entered as a combination of CTRL plus two or three other letters in sequence. This meant that touch typists who learned the control combinations could type and edit very quickly, without ever needing to take their hands from the home row of keys.

    WordPerfect 5.1 was a great leap forward in terms of page formatting and layout (bordering on “Desktop Publishing” strength) but it depended on Function keys, and speaking for myself, I could never touch type reliably with function keys, especially in combination with CTRL, ALT, etc.

    Jim T

    May 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm

  26. @Steve: Nice post! There are days when I find myself oddly nostalgic for DOS…

    @Jim T: Anything that takes a user’s fingers off the home row is just faulty design.


    May 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm

  27. true story


    May 13, 2014 at 7:08 pm

  28. Is it possible under DOS system printing via USB port?


    May 14, 2014 at 11:39 am

  29. There are similar programs actually. I.e. LyX, free as a beer, open source, Windows/Linux/Mac, its engine is LaTeX (used in the education and research environment, mostly on Natural Sciences and Engineering; generates high quality PDF). It can be configured in a minimalistic mode similar to DOS wordprocessors. If Martin knew it, he would love it and use LyX ;)


    May 15, 2014 at 7:21 am

  30. For those who were infected with the need to write, the advent of the word processor was pure magic. In 1978, that was me. I never met a Wang I didn’t love, but the price tag was way beyond my wallet. So I set about to build my own word-processor. The only language one could use on “microcomputers” for anything serious was called Assembler, which was a very low-level talk-to-the-machine in the machine’s language approach. But I wasn’t half bad with learning Assembler and so one day I woke up at Zenith Data Systems where they wanted me to work the people at their newly acquired company Heath-Kit to turn their H-89 into an office machine. But my love – and goal – was a word processor and so I tried to get a company called MicroPro and Zenith to play together – actually the price to buy MP just then was pocket change for Zenith. Alas, it was too far a leap for a TV manufacturer. So instead I moved to MicroPro and spent the next 12 years of my life as a developer, VP of Development, Pres. of WordStar Japan, product manager and lastly person-who-turns-out-the-lights. I was one of the first 60 employees and 12 years later, one of the last 12 on the day WordStar closed its doors forever.

    So hey, * thank you * to those who have used and loved WordStar. It was designed for people who write and though there have been many successors, none of them will have the intention and heart that product had. I wish we could have been smarter, wiser, better somehow back in those days so that we could have carried the torch and brought the genuine nature of WordStar into the modern world.

    Kirk Hurford

    May 15, 2014 at 4:49 pm

  31. @Kirk: I for one am very grateful, with many fond memories—thanks for posting!


    May 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm

  32. I taught my mother word processing with WordStar…I felt tortured watching her retype pages and use that white type in the electric typewriter! :) It was a nice pre-feature bloat tool, that’s for sure.

  33. Do you have any video of that? I’d care to find out more details.

  34. For those who’d like to use WordStar for DOS under modern versions of Windows (from XP right through to Windows 10), I’ve put full instructions here:

    Robert J. Sawyer

    November 19, 2014 at 1:14 pm

  35. @Robert J. Sawyer: This is awesome—thanks for sharing!


    November 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

  36. “Writers like to stick with what they know….” Who doesn’t? And why doesn’t anyone surmise that science fiction writers stick with WordStar BECAUSE they are forward-looking people? A great many programmers — generally NOT inflexible people — use WordStar-like programs. One such program, Joe’s Own Editor (joe), was included with all the early GNU/Linux distros I saw, and is still maintained and provided in the repositories for all well-known distros.

    Most of the people on the WordStar mailing list were neither professional writers nor programmers. What most of them had in common was that they were self-employed.

    Me, I’m none of the above. I had a gripe about WordStar — I felt that navigation functions should be on right-hand letter keys — and always reminded myself that I should remain flexible so I could adapt when something that I liked better came along.

    Nothing ever did. And that is something that needs investigating.

    Dan Strychalski

    December 21, 2019 at 6:39 pm

  37. The navigation keys were on the left-hand side because you used them in conjunction with the control key, of which there was originally only one, and it was adjacent to the letter A, which is also on the left-hand side All navigation could be done one-handed without taking your hand off the home row. :)

    As for why I still use WordStar myself (as a novelist), see my essay here:

    Robert J. Sawyer

    December 21, 2019 at 9:11 pm

  38. Hello, Mr. Sawyer. (Cue music) Am I that easy to forget? (cut music). Just kidding. We’ve corresponded once or twice. I’m the guy who wanted to arrange a celebration of WordStar’s fortieth anniversary. Saying I HAD a gripe doesn’t mean I still have it or switched programs!

    Having used WordStar, WordStar-ized programs, and WordStar clones since 1982, I have a more than passing familiarity with the points you make — and I am pleased to see them made anytime, anywhere.

    On the other hand, I don’t consider the diamond, or one-handed navigation, essential for a WordStar-like… no, let’s say WordStar-class UI (and there is no higher class). Here are my requirements for such a UI:

    – as-you-work on-screen help, on by default but easy to remove and restore

    – availability of all functions through alphabetic-zone ASCII keystrokes

    Ctrl and the letter keys are more than enough for cursor, scrolling, paging, editing, miscellaneous, and menu operations. (It doesn’t matter if the menus are drop-down, pull-down, pop-out, spin-around, paneled-classic, or what. It DOES matter where Ctrl is: above left Shift is best, but any row of letter keys is worth a try.)

    WordStar meets those requirements best. Of all the other programs I’ve seen, Joe’s Own Editor (joe), which is used mostly on GNU/Linux systems, comes closest, especially in its “jstar” configuration.

    When I WordStar-ized the abominations that were forced on me at work, I couldn’t make them meet the first requirement, and to make them meet the second I had to make some Ctrl-plus-letter assignments different from WordStar’s, but the differing assignments were easy to adjust to. Let NO ONE say we stick to WordStar-style operation only out of habit!

    Dan Strychalski

    December 22, 2019 at 2:42 am

  39. “Let NO ONE say we stick to WordStar-style operation only out of habit!” Hear, hear, Dan! Exactly. :D

    Robert J. Sawyer

    December 22, 2019 at 11:26 am

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