Before You Hit Save

If you’re a writer, does the format of the document you save your work into matter? What you’re reading now is HTML, but do you care? Before you see the HTML tags, the browser has stripped them out and replaced them with document formatting, so what difference does it make?

Well, it matters as soon as you share it with someone else.  You might think that sharing a document with someone else is simply a matter of giving them what you’ve created, but as will will see, that is oversimplifying the problem.

When a document is exchanged, there is an underlying assumption that the recipient will be able to open the document, access the contents and render them in a way that is acceptable to both sender and recipient. This becomes more challenging when you introduce different platforms for reading the document – is it a PC document or was it created on a Mac, or even on a Linux machine? Will they access it via mobile phone or on an iPad, for instance? All these factors can change the format and the content of any document you share.

If you don’t believe me, try changing your email client to one that only reads plain text. Any emphasis added the sender in bold or italics, by altering the size or colour of the font or the inclusion of tables or embedded objects in the message will be completely lost. Your choices are upper and lower case characters, hence the development of emoticons 🙂 and conventions for *emphasis* .

Fiction writers tend to use very little in the way of formatting when you consider what is available. They may change font, add bold or italics for emphasis and change line-spacing. They probably use centred text for titles and left-justified for the body of the text. These are not demanding or challenging requirements and have been available in word processors since they were invented.

Why, then, do you need a heavyweight word processor like Microsoft Word, Open Office Write, or Apple iWork Pages to create basic documents? These tools have enormous functionality and are verging on desktop publishing in their scope. If you’re writing non-fiction then it makes sense, as the ability to insert tables, generate a table of contents or an index, embed spreadsheets or include images in the text are all things you are likely to want to do, but for fiction?

Writers who create both fiction and non-fiction may feel they want to stick with a tool that’s familiar, since swapping around brings its own problems, but fiction writers simply don’t need all that extra functionality – they’re not going to use it and having it there is a distraction and an opportunity to introduce unwanted variability into your work. Do you really need a separate font, or slightly different margins for each chapter? Does it help to have a six-point line space before a paragraph in one chapter and a twelve-point one in the next? Worrying about these things is a displacement activity and a distraction from the task at hand, which is writing.

The other thing that writers tend to do is to write whenever they can; in their lunch-break, on the bus, when they wake up early or after everyone else has gone to bed. Many would describe it as a compulsion. What happens, though, when you change from the version of Microsoft Office you have at work to the one you have at home, or when you switch from Microsoft Works to Open Office Write, or when you go from PC to Mac.

Then we run into real problems.

In order to contain all the additional functionality, each of these packages have taken the format in which the document is stored and made it their own. Word uses .doc, while OpenOffice uses .odt. Microsoft Works has it’s own format (compatible with neither of the above). Furthermore, as these products develop they change that format, so that the .doc you used in Word 2000 is not the same as in Word 2003, and is .docx in Word 2007 where you will be invited to convert your old documents to take advantage of the new functions. Indeed, there is often a warning that documents which do not conform to the new standard may lose data or formatting if they are not saved in the new format.

For many individual users, the change in document format that comes with upgraded software is pain without gain. They do not want, need or use the additional functionality and the change in format simply means an additional cost, a waste of time and the opportunity for something else to go wrong.

How, then, do you avoid this pain? How do you ensure that you can open your documents, send them to others in a format they can read, and have all the facilities you need without the pain of document incompatibility or legacy conversion? Plain text won’t do the job and almost any commercial product wants you to adopt their document format as your personal standard.

You could use HTML. After all, it is about as ubiquitous as they come and well-supported on most platforms. The problem with HTML, though, is that when you create a new document, it adds in the header and footer tags to each individual document (I’m referring to the HTML, BODY, etc. tags that start and end each HTML document). When you come to merge the documents together, you end up with nested or duplicate tags that make a mess of your document, and so far I haven’t found a tool that will readily merge a whole bunch of html documents together into a single cohesive document.

There is an answer, though, that was originally provided by Microsoft in 1987 to address exactly these issues. The latest version of this standard was published in March 2008 and it is supported by almost every word processing tool you can name.
Rich Text Format (.rtf) was created to allow the transfer of documents between systems. The file format is directly readable by humans (i.e. it’s not a binary format) and it supports all the elements that a writer of fiction could require.

Although it is a format proprietary to Microsoft (and controlled by them) it is implemented so widely that a file created in one package is normally completely portable to another package, making it the de facto standard for simple document portability. It can be read and written natively by MS Word, Open Office, Word Perfect and a host of other packages and it is supported on Macs and PCs.

I have used .rtf for many years as the native format for my writing because it doesn’t then matter where you work. You can write in your break at work, on the train, before breakfast, on a Mac or a PC – wherever. As long as you save in Rich Text Format you can always read the file.  In short, it is the most neutral format for storing your writing.

Of course, writing on different machines gives you another problem, that of syncing your work between computers, but that is also solvable as long as you have saved your work in a platform-neutral format, such as .rtf.  So as you start a new project, consider what you’re gaining and losing by using a document format that is unique to a single product or a single platform.

You might want to consider changing the document type to RTF before you hit the save button.


  1. #1 by Drug Crazed Dropkick on June 18, 2010 - 9:39 am

    Mike :
    Is there an RTF equivalent for music? I’m certainly not aware of one. Perhaps that’s something you could develop?

    Sadly not. It something that really annoys me. Since the file type is all down to Sibelius, and I’ve never come across any loss of information when transferring from 2 to 5, let alone 4 to 5, it’s a shame that they feel the need to update the file type each time.

  2. #2 by mike.smith on June 10, 2010 - 2:05 pm

    Yes, it is true that RTF is the solution but still artificial and propietary.

    The best thing what could Microsoft do is to start to support simple odt format. Odt is open format and therefore you do not have to worry what text processor use to be able to open your file.

    MS 2007 started with its own odf format, but is still proprietary one.

    Also, there are less problems with older version compatibility. It is often case, that new Word cannot open old files. MS deliberately changes the structure so it is harder to reverse engineer the format.

    But now, for time being, RTF format is the best solution.

  3. #3 by Mike on June 9, 2010 - 11:33 am

    Is there an RTF equivalent for music? I’m certainly not aware of one. Perhaps that’s something you could develop?

  4. #4 by Drug Crazed Dropkick on June 9, 2010 - 11:01 am

    It’s an interesting question about file types, and the section on file transfer is the main issue I run into. The high school I was at updated their Office software to 2007, meaning most people couldn’t work from home unless they saved in .doc (I eventually found a file conversion system, but that’s beside the point). I’ve spoken before about the fact that I don’t use Office, but Open Office instead, so until Office 2007 included the chance to open/save as .odt I had to remember to save in .doc.

    All that however, is obvious stuff. They’ve all got different extensions and are simple to distinguish. Sibelius (Composition software) on the other hand… Dear God, every new version of Sibelius has a different format to save in, but all with the .sib extension. Meaning that unless you leave yourself a little marker, transferring from Sib 5 (Which I have at home) to Sib 4 (Which is at college) can be a real pain.

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