Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 3 / MARCH 1984 / PAGE 126

Electric Pencil PC. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.

Electric Pencil PC

It was like meeting an old friend who had undergone a Glamour makeover. I was so excited I could hardly remove the shrink wrap from the Electric pencil package.

Having struggled for several months with a supposedly user-friendly word processor for the IBM PC which numbered among its flaws the simple inability to perform certain almost vital and clearly documented operations, I was ecstatic to discover that IJG had released Electric Pencil for the IBM.

Long-time readers of Creative Computing know that this earliest of word processing programs has a special place in our hearts. They know that we have used it for our typesetting for four years. They know that we considered the loss of an occasional letter during word wrap a small price to pay for the simplicity and straightforwardness of our old friend Pencil on TRS-80, LNW-80, S-100, and Sol 20 computers. What they didn't know until now is that Electric Pencil PC is now the program of choice among IBM users on our staff.

Let me begin by saying to Pencil lovers like me: Yes, it is the same program. The commands are the same. The procedures are the same. The only changes are for the better--and in several months of use, I have lost not a single character.

That said, I shall try to set aside my biases and approach the program from the point of view of one whose introduction to personal computing coincided with his purchase of the IBM PC and who thinks WordStar is the antecedent of all word processing programs for small computers.


The first thing that strikes you when you open the Electric Pencil PC package is the attractive, trade paperback size, perfect bound, 240-page operator's manual. Michael Shrayer, author of the original Electric Pencil, and Harvard Pennington, author of TRS-80 Disk and Other Mysteries, have combined their expertise and done a superb job on the manual. The authors assume nothing and present the material in tutorial style, inviting you to experiment with each command as it is discussed. They define all technical terms as they are used and take pains to help you understand everything about the system.

Each chapter has its own table of contents, and each command is illustrated, including pictures of the screen before and after when appropriate. The notation used to distinguish key names, material typed by the user, and material displayed by the computer is consistent throughout.

Instructions for Pencil Ace and Pencil Tutor are included in the operator's manual, and there is a handy quick reference card, which you will probably be able to abandon soon after you begin using the program regularly.

In addition, the appendices include a glossary and sections on special print drivers, IBM PC characters and graphics, customer service, other programs that work with Pencil, and the files on the distribution disk.


Pencil performs all the operations-- insert and delete characters, words, lines, and blocks; scrolling; cursor movement; search and replace--that you expect a word processor to perform.

To accomplish most of these editing changes, you need only press Ctrl along with one other key. In some cases, because of the special keys on the IBM keyboard, you can choose either the dedicated key on the keyboard or the Ctrl combination. To insert one or more characters, for example, you can use either Ctrl-1 or just the Ins key. Most of the Ctrl combinations are at least somewhat mnemonic, so it is not difficult to remember them. To delete one or more characters, for example, you use either Ctrl-D or the Del key.

In insert mode, any material you type shifts the material you have already typed to the right as long as you remain on the line on which you started. When you come to the end of that line, however, the cursor automatically drops to the next line and inserts a blank line for you to type on. The program continues to add lines for your insertion until you enter a carriage return, move the cursor from the line, or press Delete, at which time your previously typed text moves up to fill in any remaining space.

One of the many improvements to Pencil appears in insert mode: when you backspace in insert mode, you get a true backspace that not only moves the cursor back, but deletes whatever it passes over. This is a market improvement over the old Pencil in which a backspace in insert mode eliminated the character over which it was placed, but did not eliminate the space that the character occupied, so that if you made a mistake while typing in insert mode, you had to eliminate deliberately the space that it had occupied.

With the monochrome display that I use, underlining shows right on the screen, as do boldface and underlined boldface. These are all invoked with Ctrl and a single character.

Editing with Electric Pencil PC is simplicity itself. The commands are straightforward, and I can think of no editing operation I would want to perform that Pencil does not provide.


Electric Pencil PC is replete with help features. There are four levels of help and a level that offers no help at all; all are invoked with Ctrl-H. Help level 4 uses half of the screen to list the most frequently used editing and cursor movements and the commands that implement them. It also tells you the status (off or on) of Caps Lock, Num Lock, underline, and boldface. Above all this information appears a line that indicates the position of the cursor and the location of all tab settings.

Help levels 1, 2, and 3 offer progressively fewer of these helps, and level 0 leaves you completely on your own.

The price you pay for all this assistance is loss of text area on the screen. On level O, you have use of all 25 lines on the screen. On level 4, you get only 10 lines of text.

After a few hours of practice, it is quite practical to specify level 0 as the default condition and refer to the help display or quick reference card only when memory fails.


The Pencil print menu, which is reached by pressing Ctrl-P from edit mode, offers all the standard print formatting options, including right justification, left margin setting, line length, line spacing, page length, page spacing, page numbering, number of copies, and halt after linefeed.

The print menu also allow you to specify certain features of your printer, including baud rate, parity, and word length.

If you use the same print format for most of your work, you can save that format and make its values the default values in the print menu. You can also save the print formats of an individual document with the document itself so the when you load the document the print format is loaded with it--a feature that will surely be of great value to users of form letters.

Most of the options offered on the print format menu can be used as imbedded commands to provide dynamic print formatting. In addition to specifying page numbering, right justification, line length, and margins, you can center, indent text, "outdent' lines, switch headings on odd and even numbered pages, pause printing, and do quite a few other tricky things using imbedded commands.

Another useful imbedded command is conditional paging, which allows you to keep a paragraph from starting on a page if only one or two lines will be printed before the page ends. You can also use imbedded commands to call and print additional files from disk.

As with the editing commands, I have not had a need for any print format that Electric Pencil PC could not handle.

System Menu

The system menu includes all of the Pencil disk commands, such as load, save, append, copy, erase, directory, clear, rename, and exit. (The entire program is completely copyable, so you can make as many backup copies as you feel you need.) The system menu also displays the date and time (if you have entered them at the beginning of your word processing session), the number of words in the current file, and the amount of free text space.

From the system menu you can set the date and time, specify a default drive and file as well as other default values, save print values, and redefine the function keys.

Redefine the function keys? Yes, you can define any or all of the IBM PC function keys to suit your needs--and it is very easy to do. Each key can be defined as a string of up to 16 characters, including control characters. You might want to make one key automatically center the word MEMO or print the name of your company in boldface. You can even have the function keys substitute for Ctrl and Alt sequences as well as the sequences for imbedded commands. I, for example, have defined one of the function keys as; CL;, the command for centering. Now, whenever I want to center something, I need to press only one key instead of four. And the process of redefinition is so simple that you could easily redefine the keys each time you sit down to type if you know that you will be using a certain phrase or command repeatedly in a given document.

The system menu also offers you an opportunity to live dangerously.

When you receive the disk, the verify option is on. If you attempt to load a file into the buffer, clear the text from memory, or exit the program without having saved your text to disk, Pencil will say: Up-dated text not saved--Continue (Y/N)? and require you to press Y or N before it continues. This feature is obviously intended to keep you from carelessly destroying your files. If, however, you are as the manual says "ozzing with confidence,' you can easily turn the verify function off. The program will then allow you to do whatever stupid things you care to without interference.

Utility Functions

In addition to the print and disk system commands, Electric Pencil provides a group of utility functions. The most important of these are set help level, string search, and dict-a-matic.

Setting the help level allows you to choose the amount of help you want on the screen at any given time. The help level can be set as a default value through the setup command in the system menu. You can, however, invoke as much help as you want at any time simply by typing Ctrl-H from edit mode.

Using string search, you can locate and change, if necessary, all occurrences of a given string of characters. Wild cards and null characters can be used when specifying the string to be searched. After the search is performed, Pencil tells you how many times the string appears in your document.

To replace a string, you simply specify the word or phrase you want to substitute when the program prompts Replace with:. If you want to replace only some of the occurrences of your word or phrase, you can use conditional replacement, which allows you to see each occurrence individually and decide whether to change it or not. With masked search mode you can search and replace strings without regard for upperor lowercase or attributes such as bold or underlining.

For people who use word processors for transcribing dictation, interviews, minutes, and the like, IJG has included a built-in cassette start/stop feature called dict-a-matic. The cassette recorder is attached to the cassette port and the Esc key becomes an on/off control. This system is not a substitute for a proper transcriber equipped with foot-controlled on/off, fast forward, and rewind switches, but for the occasional user, it is a great deal better than constantly having to remove one hand from the keyboard to control the recorder.

Pencil Ace

Pencil Ace is a separate utility program that complements Electric Pencil PC. The documentation for Pencil Ace is included in the main manual, and the program also includes a help mode.

With Pencil Ace installed, you have access to an additional set of cursor control and other commands to make your editing even easier. Cursor control commands include cursor to next word, previous word, previous sentence, next sentence, next paragraph, and previous paragraph. You can also delete words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Pencil Ace even does windows. It allows you to use up to six screens or text windows at a time. I found the process very confusing and cannot conceive of any possible use for the function, but windows are the wave of the future, and those who want them will find them here.

For adherents of the what-you-see . . . school of word processing, Pencil Ace offers the ability to set the screen width to correspond with the width of the printed document--as long as the printed document is between 10 and 80 characters wide.

Another useful feature of Pencil Ace is automatic key entry. You create your own automatic key entry files and name them. You could, for example, put your letterhead in an automatic key entry file. Then each time you wanted to type a letter, you would need only to specify the filename, and the letterhead would virtually type itself. This feature would also be useful for typing legal boilerplate, engineering specifications, and form letters --any task which requires repeated use of identical text. It can also be used to merge a mailing list with form letters. Boldface, underlining, and all of the abovementioned imbedded commands can be included in an automatic key entry file, and files can be chained together to create customized documents.

As if creating a comprehensive, easy to use word processor with windows were not enough, IJG offers through Pencil Ace the ability to reprogram the entire keyboard. Let's assume for a moment that you have been using a Brand X word processor and although you are not entirely satisfied with its features, you have grown accustomed to the function keys; Ctrl-E for backspace makes sense to you, and you are loathe to change your ways. With Pencil Ace, you can reprogram Electric Pencil to imitate the function keys of your old program or define a completely new set.

Pencil Tutor

Pencil Tutor is the second companion program to Electric Pencil PC.

It consists of 62 separate Tutor screens, each of which explains one Pencil command. At any time during your word processing session, you can press Ctrl-H followed by a command that has you confused, and the program will display an explanatory paragraph about that command. If you don't know what command you want, you can refer to the Pencil Tutor Key Guide in the manual which lists all of the commands and abbreviated explanations of each: Ctrl-G, Insert Line. Tutor is not intended to serve as a step-by-step tutorial, but rather as a ready reference for the person who has read enough of the manual to get started. It is also useful for veteran users who may tend to forget seldom used commands.


Is Electric Pencil PC for everyone? Probably not, but I can think of only one group for whom it would probably not suffice. Academicians--particularly those of the mathematical persuasion-- will probably want a program that can handle superscripts and subscripts adroitly and perhaps even do automatic footnoting. Electric Pencil PC can be coerced into doing these things, using the infile character translation feature, but the process is cumbersome and probably best left to diehard hackers.

Pencil can, however, do just about everything else a word processor should do, and everything it does, it does with a minimum of fuss. Over the years, we have taught high school dropouts, Ph.D.s, technophobes, artists, secretaries, and many other typists and non-typists to the Electric Pencil. Few of them needed more than an hour or two to become proficient with the system--and none of them had the advantage of Pencil Tutor and the excellent new manual.

Another important consideration for all word processor users is, of course, reliability. As an Electric Pencil user, I have long since ceased to worry about losing files due to software problems. But I was reminded of the importance of software reliability recently when the night before he was to leave for a show, a fellow editor found himself copying a story from the screen of his Apple onto his Model 100. His word processor had taken a vacation, and he could neither save nor print his file. When I left him at 7:00 p.m., I smugly assured myself, and I can assure you, that this would never happen to an Electric Pencil user. In five years, power failures and my own carelessness are the only things that have caused me to lose files.

Do I recommend Electric Pencil PC? The answer is a resolunding Yes!

The people at IJG have taken a good, reliable program and turned it into a marvel of flexibility and dependability. And they have taken the time to debug it thoroughly before releasing it; even the Beta test copy we had performed flawlessly.

If you are a hacker who enjoys setting DIP switches, writing drivers, and inventing imbedded commands, buy another word processor. If, however, you other word user who want a straight-forward, comprehensive, easy to use program, get Electric Pencil PC.

Photo: Figure 1. Illustrations for description of insert mode show before and after screens.

After Inserting "ZZZZZZ'.

Cursor in the Middle of a Word Near the End of the Line.

With the cursor here, in insert mode, press: ZZZZZZ.

Photo: Figure 2. On help level 4, the bottom 15 lines of the screen are occupied by brief explanations of the most frequently used editing commands; Caps Lock, Num Lock, underline, and a boldface status indicators; and a line showing the position of all tab settings and the cursor.

Photo: Figure 3. The print menu.

Photo: Figure 4. The system menu.

Photo: Figure 5. The search and replace functions allow you to change all occurrences of a given word or phrase or just the ones that are incorrect.

Photo: Figure 6. Pencil Tutor provides a detailed explanation of each of 62 commands.

Products: Electric Pencil PC (Word processing software)