Sustainability of Digital Formats: Planning for Library of Congress Collections

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WordStar File Format Family

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Format Description Properties Explanation of format description terms

Identification and description Explanation of format description terms

Full name WordStar File Format Family

Note that this a preliminary format description with more detailed information to come.

The WordStar format is the default proprietary plain text format for the word processing application of the same name. This document describes the features of the WordStar word processing application as they are relevant to the resulting digital files but the focus of the information presented here is about the WordStar file format. First introduced in September 1978 with WordStar version 1 for CP/M (Control Program/Monitor or Control Program for Microcomputers), WordStar was one of the most influential word processing formats in early computing. As Matthew G. Kirschenbaum explains in his 2016 book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, as one of the first word processors, WordStar helped change the game for writers because it allowed them fast, direct, and intimate control over the text and how it would look on a printed page. WordStar processor was the first to render the document on screen as it would appear when printed, including page, margins, and justification. Among its legions of fans are Anne Rice, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, and perhaps most famously, George R.R. Martin for his Song of Fire and Ice novels. Arthur C. Clarke is another notable fan who wrote the 1982 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey was written on an Archives III microcomputer running WordStar and Kirschenbaum notes that “last-minute corrections {of the manuscript] were transmitted through the Padukka Earth Station and the Indian Ocean Intelsat V.” Robert W. Sawyer calls this process "aiding creative composition" in WordStar: A writer’s word processor. WordStar's intuitive control-key commands were much more efficient than dedicated keys such as those on IBM PC keyboards because the WordStar application control-key commands can be typed from the home row without hunting for special keys elsewhere on the keyboard. Although as Jo Livingstone points out in How Literature Became Word Perfect, "Many of the highest-browed in the literary world resisted word processing for decades. Indeed, some writers would conceal the fact that they used a word processor for fear of being tarnished by an association with automation or inauthenticity." See History for more information about WordStar versions.

While WordStar files is associated with specific file extensions including .ws and more, these file extensions were not required by the WordStar software. The WordStar Reference Manual from 1983 p.1-12 states: "The most useful file name is one that helps you remember the file contents. In addition to the filenaming requirements listed on the screen, the following guidelines apply... You may include a period followed by an extension of one to three characters to describe the type of file. For example, you might add .LET after each letter file name, .REP after each report or .912 to indicate that September 12 was the last editing session." The only suggested restriction on file naming was to avoid using the .BAK extension because this is used by the WordStar application to name backup files.

A main characteristic of WordStar files are the four types of commands: single key, control key with one other key, control key with two other keys, and dot commands. The first three types of commands are applicable to the WordStar application to navigate menus and perform operations such as Print or Save. A dot command, on the other hand, is a command which is entered into a WordStar file itself by typing a period ("dot") in the first column, followed by two characters in upper or lowercase... Most dot commands are entered at the beginning of a file but can also be placed strategically throughout the file. The 1983 WordStar Reference Manual explains that "for example, the command for a new page is placed in the exact spot in the text where you want one page to end and another to begin." In addition dot commands take up space on the screen but not on the printed page.  A summary of WordStar version 3 Dot Commands includes

  • .PO: page offset
  • .PA: new page
  • .PN: page number
  • .CP: conditional page
  • and many more

Structurally, a WordStar file is 7-bit ASCII code for printable characters as outlined in the File Format for WordStar Release 7.0, an ad hoc specification released in 1992 BY WordStar International Incorporated. An extension to the 7-bit ASCII character set by means of 3-byte sequences was introduced starting with release 3.4. "These codes all begin with the lead-in character 1Bh and end with the trailer 1Ch. The code in between these two characters can be any value in the range from 00h through FFh...All WordStar files terminate normal lines (paragraphs) with the sequence 0Dh, 0Ah, (carriage return, line feed). A 'soft return' 8Dh, 0Ah is inserted in the text stream at the points where lines are subject to word-wrap. A "soft space" A0h is inserted for tabbing, justification, and for left-margin indentation. In normal mid-paragraph lines, the blank characters (usually space) following words at the end of lines will be retained, so that the user's text is fully retained." In the versions of WordStar prior to the 5.0 release, the 8th bit or "high" bit of ASCII characters, which are usually reserved to extend the character set, were instead used to store print and formatting information. When these WordStar files are interpreted via typical encodings, they may appear as gibberish because of the additional bits.

Production phase Initial-state for creators or authors, by distributors, publishers, or archives (middle state), or as delivered to end users (final state).

Local use Explanation of format description terms

LC experience or existing holdings The Library of Congress has several hundred WordStar files in its collections, mostly from Special Collections content. These comprise a variety of WordStar versions and extensions including but not limited to .ws, .wsd. ws5, .ws6 and .ws7.
LC preference See the Recommended Formats Statement for the Library of Congress format preferences for textual works.

Sustainability factors Explanation of format description terms

Disclosure WordStar for MS-DOS 7.0 Specification released by WordStar International Incorporated on March 17, 1992. Includes some history of previous releases
    Documentation WordStar for MS-DOS 7.0 Specification - The specification comprehensively describes the WordStar 7.0 format. For many features, it also indicates which version of WordStar that feature was added in. For example, it is specified that ASCII codes are used in all versions of WordStar, but math in the argument of dot commands was added in WordStar 4.0, and symmetrical sequences were added in WordStar 5.0
Adoption WordStar was the market leader in word processing for CP/M and DOS computers from its creation in 1979 and throughout the early 1980s. From Seymour Rubinstein’s memoir on WordStar, MicroPro’s revenue in its first fiscal year was $500,000 and grew to $1.8 million in its second year. By 1982, the company was doing almost $45 million in sales. WordStar’s market share declined throughout the mid to late 1980s as the result of a long period with no updates after the WordStar 3.3 release in 1983 and a poorly received WordStar 2000 release in 1985. Although WordStar for CP/M and DOS held a position of extended dominance, WordStar for Windows arrived late to the market and struggled to gain a foothold.
    Licensing and patents To come
Transparency As a legacy format, WordStar files depend on older hardware and software to view and edit. There are existing tools that can convert WordStar to Microsoft Word Documents and other text formats. Star Exchange, which was included with WordStar for MS-DOS versions 5-7 and WordStar 2000 allows conversion between WordStar files and other formats. A full list of supported conversions is available in the Star Exchange manual. Other word processors from the early 2000s also featured conversion utilities for WordStar, including Star Office and Microsoft Word 2003 and earlier. A list of software and tools is available in this FAQ on converting WordStar files into other formats, but because of their age, supported versions of these tools may be difficult to locate and acquire (link via Internet Archive).
Self-documentation To come
External dependencies To come
Technical protection considerations To come

Quality and functionality factors Explanation of format description terms

Integrity of layout and display WordStar processor was the first to render the document on screen as it would appear when printed, including page, margins, and justification.
Support for mathematics, formulae, etc. Mathematics related to formatting, such as subtracting or adding margin space, are supported via dot commands and saved as executionables within the file. The WordStar program has a fairly capable built-in calculator that supports scientific notation, but all functions of this type are performed locally and saved alongside text information as plain ASCII characters.

File type signifiers and format identifiers Explanation of format description terms

Tag Value Note
Filename extension ws
There is no official file extension for WordStar files as authors could create their own. The ones listed here are examples of common extension used.
Internet Media Type Not found.  Comments welcome.   
Magic numbers Hex: 1D 7D 00 00 70
From PRONOM. WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 7, see
Magic numbers Hex: 1D 7D 00 00 60
From PRONOM. WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 6, see
Magic numbers Hex: 1D 7D 00 00 50
From PRONOM. WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 5, see
Magic numbers Hex: 1D 7D
From Gary Kessler's File Signatures Table for WordStar v 5.0/6.0
Magic numbers Hex: 57 53 32 30 30 30
From Gary Kessler's File Signatures Table for WordStar for Windows Ver. 2
Pronom PUID x-fmt/370
WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 3, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/205
WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 5, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/236
WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 5.5, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/237
WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 6, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/261
WordStar for MS-DOS document, Version 7, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/206
WordStar for Windows 1.0, see
Pronom PUID x-fmt/262
WordStar for Windows 2.0, see
Pronom PUID fmt/882
WordStar 2000
Wikidata Title ID Q105856544
See for the WordStar file format family. Wikidata also has entries for some, but not all, individual versions of WordStar as of June 2022.

Notes Explanation of format description terms

General The WordStar Word Processor allowed for editing files in either document or non-document mode. The format described here is the result of document mode. Non-document mode has no formatting characters included and was typically used as a programming editor. Because non-document mode does not use formatting characters, files created in this mode adhered to 7-bit ASCII standards and did not repurpose the high bit. The results were akin to plain text, and non-document mode was promoted as a way to create and edit files that can be used across many different programs. Non-document mode is described in detail in Chapter 10 of the WordStar 3.3 Reference Manual.
History According to, the initial version of the WordStar software was first published by MicroPro International in 1978 for Digital Research, Inc’s CP/M operating system. MicroPro’s founder, Seymour Rubenstein, and WordStar’s first author, Rob Barnaby, worked together at a computer manufacturer, IMS Associates, Inc. Rubenstein left IMS to form MicroPro and Barnaby joined him, initially creating a word processor called WordMaster in 1976. The assistance of programmer Jim Fox brought the addition of dot commands, two distinct interface modes, and printing and formatting functionality, and created the initial version of WordStar for CP/M. At this point, a burnt-out Barnaby left MicroPro, leaving Fox to steward the program as adoption for different systems increased. Subsequent releases of WordStar’s early versions were ports for different microcomputers – for example, Tandy's LDOS-5 (PDF download), the Epson PX-8, the Osborne 1, and the Apple II. WordStar version 3.0 was the initial version for Microsoft’s MS-DOS and this period was the program's most successful (see Adoption). Two programmers from MicroPro left to form NewStar, who released a program based on WordStar, NewWord. At the same time, MicroPro – embroiled in legal conflict with IMS Associates over the WordMaster intellectual property – became a publicly traded company at the height of WordStar for DOS’ success. The mid-to-late eighties saw the issue of WordStar 2000 and several versions until WordStar 4, which was essentially NewWord under the WordStar name after MicroPro acquired NewStar. Versions 5, 6, and 7 expanded the program’s file format (see Documentation) to include features such as pull-down menus and support for Star Exchange, a file format conversion system. In 1989, MicroPro changed its name to WordStar International as it released the program’s final version for DOS. WordStar International then released WordStar 1.0 for Windows, which was not a Windows version of the program for DOS, but a new user experience entirely. Several Windows versions followed as WordStar International underwent several mergers and acquisitions. The appearance of competing software such as WordPerfect in the early 90s, and later, Microsoft’s Word, resulted in declining usage of WordStar until the program ceased production in 1999. Comments welcome.

Format specifications Explanation of format description terms

Useful references


Last Updated: 12/27/2022