Printing and Postscript

A free alternative to word processors for print layout.

I no longer use a word processor. I believe that as email, web pages and messaging gets more prevalent and better accepted, private as well as commercial users will realise that the typical Microsoft Office paradigm of producing ever fancier looking paper output has become outmoded, and pointless.

Material written with a word processor eventually becomes inaccessible, because the computer files are in a proprietary, binary format. If you want to preserve access to your words, you should consider the format in which you store it.

Word processors have made it possible for many people to more easily turn out printed material. They are therefore great for material that is ephemeral. However using a word processor may cause compatibility and archiving problems over even short spans of time.

Note also that although email and messaging and internet news was all originally in plain text, monopoly interests such as Microsoft now attempt to hide this original plain text in proprietary format files. This is a deliberate attempt to lock consumers into proprietary commercial products. I believe such attempts should be resisted by any means available.

Despite this, sometimes printing something is what I want to do. I use Graham Freeman's very simple 35k markup language called QuickScript to do all my desktop publishing.

Historical Perspective

I've been using computers for text entry since about 1978. Before PCs were common, I used a variety of word processors and text editors, on a variety of different types of computers. Names like Ohio Scientific, System 80, Microbee, and even Apple II are now being lost in the past. Can anyone still read the cassettes or floppy disks they produced?

One problem was that each word processor used a different format for their files, and typically couldn't read their competitor's files. Can you read WordMarc, WP6502, or even WordStar on CP/M disks? I eventually learned to make sure I saved material in plain old ASCII text format, before moving to a new computer or a new word processor.

My PC experience was in a position that required equation handling, and so we went through a variety of obscure word processors selected for their ability to handle equations. The best of these MS-DOS based programs was probably Lotus Manuscript.

Eventually various MS Windows word processors appeared, and we tried most of them, including MS Word. The earlier versions of MS Word had totally inadequate equation handling, but eventually Microsoft bought in an equation handling package that was adequate for class notes.

Equations require special care in typesetting, and MS Word just wasn't good enough for writing for journals. The solution for the mathematicians was to use Knuth's specialist mathematical markup language TeX. You insert a visible marker in your text where you want some special formatting to appear. This is actually very similar to what most word processors do. The difference is that word processors tend to hide the commands from your view.

The only real problem with using TeX is that it initially appears somewhat more complex to learn than a more popular word processor. This appearance of simplicity in a word processor is often illusionary. MS Word for example now contains more than a thousand commands! Naturally most people don't actually use more than a small subset of the available facilities.

Meanwhile, for my own writing, I was using whatever product I'd last looked at. After about the third or fourth change to the format of MS Word files (and lots of angst translating material from earlier word processors when I hadn't saved it as ASCII), I decided to get off that treadmill of obsolete file formats. I stopped using or accepting word processing files, including the increasingly popular MS Word files. Given all the Word macro viruses that later appeared, that turned out to be a much safer move than I expected.

I could have used TeX, however I didn't need the specialist mathematical routines it included. I had noticed that I hardly ever actually used all the facilities offered in modern word processors. I wanted something simpler, and smaller.

Enter Quikscript

I now Graham Freeman's Postscript formatting routines to do desktop publishing. This is a very simple markup language called QuickScript. The core of it is only about 35K. You use very simple markup commands in your text file. The complete list of these commands runs only a few pages of the manual. Indeed, the whole manual is only 60 or so pages (and is itself naturally written in QuikScript). Also, if you don't like the commands, you can change them. You can also extend them and easily add more commands. Did I mention it was free?

QuikScript is written in Postscript, and it changes the way your printer works. Your Postscript printer handles the fonts, and the formatting, and all the heavy work of publishing. So I get printed results fast, without a fast computer, because the printer does most of the work.

Download the latest copy from the author Graham Freeman at

Don't forget you can capture graphics from other applications by printing them to file using a Postscript printer, and then converting to encapsulated Postscript.

Any Computer, Any Operating System

It doesn't matter which computer you use, nor which operating system. Use MS-DOS, Unix, Linux, QNX or aything. Use a PC or an ancient Apple II if you like. QuikScript works well from any computer at all. This is because the Postscript printer is doing the work. All the computer needs is an editor that can produce plain ASCII text and a way to send it to the printer.

Actually, modern - helpful - operating systems are the biggest problem. They try to help by changing what you send to the printer. So under Windows you may need to send a file to the printer using the MS-DOS Print command, or freeware like PrintFile. On a Psion EPOC organiser you can do the equivalent by using the Comms application to send files to the printer.

Postscript Described

So what is Postscript, and how does it manage to handle desktop publishing from a 35 K file?

Adobe Postscript is a computer language specifically intended to control fancy printers. Lots of high end laser printers include it. It was Postscript that gave the Apple Macintosh a big following in the printing graphics world. Postscript is generally written by some other program (the Microsoft Windows Postscript printer driver writes Postscript, for example).

However, despite being a printer control language, it is also a complete computer programming language, and you can write direct in Postscript yourself. Or you can use Postscript to interpret commands that you include in the text you feed it from your text editor or word processor, as is done by QuikScript.

My Printer doesn't use Postscript

You can feed QuikScript files to a freely available Postscript simulator called GhostScript, that runs on many different kinds of computer and oprating system. This can accept all the QuikScript commands, and send the result to a printer that isn't as smart as Postscript ones. GhostScript is also free, however it is somewhat larger than QuikScript, being about 5 megabytes. There is also a previewer called GhostView, that can show the results before sending them to a printer, however a donation is requested for this.

Printer Review

My printer was a Hewlett Packard LaserJet 5MP, a few generations old. It is an 8 page per minute personal printer with a couple of parallel ports, an Apple Mac port, and an IrDA port. It accepted old standard 72 pin memory chips, so I upgraded it to 16 MB long ago.

This printer tests out using PPST as PPST-G=54.5, PPST-R=11.9, PPST-M=7.6 or a total of PPST=14.3 (compared to an Apple Laser Writer=1). PPST is a really neat set of Postscript printer tests I obtained many years ago from Jean-Serge Gagnon at JSG8A at ACADVMI.UOTTAWA.CA

Apart from a tendency to have problems if you run double sided printing while the paper is still warm from the first run, the HP 5MP has been pretty trouble free. I particularly like having the IrDA port, as I can use it from my Psion 5 pocket computer. I also like having the option of a "straight through" paper path for the second paper feed, as it helps when doing double sided printing, or printing envelopes, or feeding letterheads. The only thing I would like to have would be a standard RS232 serial port, because that way I could see the Postscript error messages returned by the printer, or could type Postscript direct into it.

I replaced the HP 5MP with an HP 2550L in 2005. All my old files work fine. I do miss the IrDA port however.

Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)

This isn't sufficiently portable (most of my computers can't produce it), however it is a pretty good attempt at a viewing and printing format that is universal between computers. The major fault (and strength) is that it is paper and printing oriented. It is a great way to transmit files for subsequent printing in a highly accurate version of the original. It is also far safer than sending word processed files. It is however not nearly so good a way to actually view files on a PC.

Adobe give away the PDF viewers (Adobe Acrobat Reader) for Windows 95, and up, and for Macintosh. They sell the Adobe Acrobat conversion utility for many hundred dollars. They also make available the formats for PDF files, so others have made viewers and conversion utilities. You can do conversion to PDF on the Adobe web site. You can do conversions using utilities that accompany GhostScript.

Material I write using QuikScript is itself Postscript. Well written Postscript converts quickly and easily into very small and clean PDF files, usually much smaller than the original text.

There are articles about PDF on These include links to alternative methods of producing PDF files.

Thomas Merz has a book Web Publishing with Acrobat PDF, and an excellent PDFLib site that includes hints on PDFMark, jpg to PDF converter and other help.

Postscript and Publishing

I checked these in late 2002.

I hope you have enjoyed