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Word Processors of Yore: Write in WordStar 4.0 for Giggles

Going oldschool…

“Once, my child, WYSIWYG was little more than the sound a man made when sneezing and farting at the same time…”

The young word-warrior blinked at his elder, “But, how could you know what your words would look like when you were ready to make an eBook?”

“Ha!” The old woman crinkled her bulbous nose at the warrior. “You’re soft, boy. When I was your age, eBooks were no more than a nightmare haunting the publishing industry! A tale told to baby publishers to frighten them!”

The elder grunted as she pushed herself from the chair.

“Oh, no, my youngling. We wrote words of power in ASCII and ATASCII, where bold and italics were dreams, and printers screeched in the night air…”

Wordy word processors

We all know how awesome modern word processors are. Typewriters, while useful as a weapon/door stop/anchor, are a real bear to edit on — No backspace, no select, and cut & paste was actually cut & paste. With paste. Like kindergarten.

And don’t get me started on quill and parchment. What a mess! And that horrid scratching…

And no one would be seen dead today with a stretched piece of human skin and a bowl of demon blood to finger paint with. So 6000 BC.

But some youngins may not know just how different today’s word processors are from Ye Olde Worde Processing Programs.

I began writing on an Atari 8-bit computer. An 800XL if memory serves, which it might not.

Those were the days! I remember my “upgrade” from an 800XL to a 130XE — which had 128K of RAM! It could hold the word processor and the spell checker in memory at once!

128 kilobytes of RAM. A chunk of which was used by the hardware.

This image is 128k of data:

This image could not fit in the entire memory of my old Atari computer.

AtariWriter+ was my first word processor. The bleeps and bloops as I typed, the boop-boop-boop sound the Atari made when loading and saving files, the beastly sound of the Epson dot-matrix printer.

AtariWriter Plus
You want it. Don’t lie.

How I miss those dot-matrix printers. They sounded like a hive of angry killer bees flying through a tin can inside a submarine. On fire.The blue background and white text bring me back in time.And Oh! The limits!A few pages of text would clog up the RAM like a parakeet in a vacuum hose. A large project would have to be broken up into many smaller files, and even over many floppy disks — the real ones, not the hard “floppy” disks of the ’90s. A novel length work would span files, disks, reams of printer paper…

Some still ride the dinosaurs.

Speaking of old word processors… Anyone remember WordStar?No, not you George R. R. Martin. I know you know of WordStar.

But, anyone else? Don’t all answer at once now.

Here are two strange facts about WordStar 4.0 for DOS.

  1. George R. R. Martin still uses his original copy on a DOS computer to write those sprawling, epic Song of Ice and Fire books. Talk about intestinal fortitude!
  2. I am using it right now to write this very post.

Yes, that’s right, you can still dabble in the old steam-powered tech of yesteryear to write things for today. It’s like writing from back in time to the current future!

WordStar 4.0
The future of word processing pasts.

Why would you do such a thing? Fucked if I know. I just do things. Sometimes they make no sense.

But allow me to demonstrate:

How to use WordStar to be just like George R. R. Martin, except less famous, far less rich, and without your own TV show:

  1. Get DosBox, a DOS simulator/emulator. This little gem runs on your modern machine and acts like an old DOS machine, complete with crisp EGA graphics and the wicked sounds of a SoundBlaster 16.
  2. Get WordStar 4.0. There are other versions, but for the real George R. R. Martin experience, 4.0 is the one you want. You may be able to buy it somewhere, but good luck sticking that floppy disk in your DVD drive. Google ‘WordStar 4’ and ‘’ and maybe you will find an download.
  3. Bask in the glory of strange and ancient menus, formatting displayed by symbols, and blocky grey text.
  4. Write.
  5. Save.
  6. Get WSedit. This is a Windows program similar in many ways to WordStar.
  7. Load the saved document (WordStar unformatted) in WSedit and export it to a RTF.
WordStar 4.0
Step 1: Write in cuneiform.
Converting WordStar Document
Step 2: Convert to something useful.
The doc in a modern word processor
Step 3: Proft.

Now you have a modern RTF document, originally created in a program from the ’80s. In DOS. Like a boss.

“Why not just write the document in WPedit?” You ask?

Because that isn’t nerd enough, fool.

So, the odd thing about all of this is WordStar is totally usable. It is a very nice word processor. People must have wet their pants when this thing came out. We have bold, italics, underline (none of these show in the editor, but they would print), spell checking, find and replace, movable tabs, line spacing, page markers…

I can see why George R. R. R. R. R. Martin would use this even today.

As an aside, the science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, uses WordStar today as well, and has a great writeup on how to get it up and running on Windows via a very nice program, vDOSPlus. This even allows one to use truetype fonts for display and all the rest, making it a very pleasurable way to run these old word processors—even including XYWrite or Word Perfect. Take a gander at:

Tell me, what did you start writing on? Typewriter? Stone tablet? The walls of a padded cell?

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  1. I started writing in Wordstar (don’t remember which version) under CP/M on an Amstrad CPC. Took me a while to figure out all the dot-commands. Later upgraded to ConTEXT. Ahhh, ye olden days…

  2. I started in an Olidata PC running Windows 98. Not too bad for a millennial. Yes, I have tried using a typewriter too. Having one used to be one of my greatest dreams as a child. Now, though, I can say I am fine with my good new iMac. I can only go as vintage as my LP record player with a scratched disk.

    Also, although I know it has been years since you posted this article, I have not enjoyed one as much for a long time. Thank you.

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