Ancient Word Processors — Why Even Look?

First story I ever sold was written in 1991 using DisplayWrite3 1.10, a pretty unexceptional IBM product from about 1986. It was actually ported to DOS from dedicated IBM word processing terminals.  Word for Windows was in its adumbral phase in those days, WordPerfect 5.1 dominated on DOS machines and Microsoft was in the process of misleading WordPerfect corporation over the Windows API (and selecting key bindings that would interfere with WP users’ muscle memory) in order to get people to buy Word (which worked).

Obligatory screen grab of DisplayWrite3 menu screen.

Obligatory screen grab of DisplayWrite3 menu screen.

I still find myself using the keystrokes from DW3, I suspect just because it was the first word processing tool I ever really learned. That means that when I use anything else, I have an extra layer separating me from the program. No matter how lousy in retrospect, your first is always your first… Habit is a powerful thing, especially the first one in a given pursuit. The fact that DW3 used a simple green on black screen that was incredibly easy on the eyes was not, I think, a bad thing, and some modern programs like WriteRoom, WordGrinder and DarkRoom (review at are essentially recreating the same feel. The key qualities are:

(1) You don’t have many formatting options available. For a draft of a story I like centring (for section breaks) and some form of emphasis. (DW3 actually lacked italic — it had underlines and bold (and bold underline only! And anyway on screen all the program did was change the text to blue.) But that is about it — any more complex formatting can usually be done once the drafting is finished and imported into a modern program. Of course some typographically complex works can’t easily be done this way.  Programs like this are often not much good if you need accented characters or Greek symbols.

(2) For what formatting is available, you don’t need to use a mouse, just a few keystrokes. Your hands stay around the keyboard.

(3) The screen is easy on the eye — green on black (like an old XT monochrome screen) or the white on blue of WordPerfect 5.1 and similar. The font is large and easy to read — this is going to be very subjective. For us old DOS users, the simple VGA-style fonts on these old programs is invisible (like the word ‘said’), not so for younger people.

(4) The basic copy/paste/search/replace tools are available, again using keystrokes. This was very simply implemented in DW3 and I still recall the keystrokes: (1) F4, (2) C(ut), M(ove) or D(elete), (3) block in text, beginning at current cursor position, (4) Enter to copy/cut/delete, (5) move cursor, (6) Enter to paste/move text to new cursor position.

I think Alec is right, we tend to adapt to the constraints of the tools we are given (or find) especially when they are the first tool we pick up in that category, and the constraints can become strengths in our eyes. Which I guess they are — for us!

I would never use such a program to write a scientific paper..  That needs access to massive libraries of symbols, the ability to insert equations and figures and references, and so on.  For that, I use LaTeX.



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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