File Formats: Readable vs. Convenient

If you want to send me a document—a story, poem, or essay; comments on some of my work; a circular letter; your resume (for whatever strange reason!); or pretty much anything else (though I’m restricting this discussion to word processor documents and spreadsheets)—there are a few formats I would like (and, depending on how I feel about the document in question, love or be delighted might not be too strong a phrase) to receive it in, several that I can easily enough< read it in, and a few that I can if necessary read it in. Today, I'd like to explain which formats go in which categories, why.

Preferred formats

These are the formats I would be delighted to receive. (Given the scarcity of attachments in these formats, do not be surprised if I write an effusively-thankful reply to an email with such an attachment.)

  • Plain text, optionally with some sort of unobtrusive markup.
  • Readable (i.e. not word-processor-generated) HTML.
  • For spreadsheets, the venerable (and quite old) SC spreadsheet format. (But unless you're using SC or XSpread, don't bother.)

Easily-Enough-Readable Formats

These are formats that I can read easily enough, but that are somewhat annoying or inconvenient given my normal workflow; they also tend to be much larger than my preferred formats.

  • Any of the OpenDocument formats, which are the native formats of OpenOffice, LibreOffice, et al.
  • Obfuscated HTML.
  • The native formats of the GNOME Office suite.
  • PDF files, so long as you can copy the actual text. (Some PDF documents use vector graphics to draw the text.)
  • \TeX, DocBook, or similar formats.

Formats to Use If All Else Fails

These formats are quite annoying, rather inconvenient, or otherwise objectionable. Other than Microsoft Office formats, these are generally formats from word processors I've used in the past, whose files I now wish I'd saved as text instead because they're such a pain to read now.

  • Microsoft Office format files, particularly since Office 2007. (Office XML—.docx—is worse than the old format.)
  • Microsoft Works format.
  • WordPerfect format (though the older the better, to a point …)


Most of the time, I use a standard text editor for editing documents, adding simple markup if I need to designate formatting. (Margins, line spacing, fonts, and the like are distractions at best.) If I need to produce or read one of my non-preferred formats, I open my graphical word processor, OpenOffice [now LibreOffice], or if formatting is not essential I rely on command-line tools (Linux intermediate and advanced users: I'm talking about lessopen) to convert them to text. OpenOffice is bloated and resource-intensive, and doesn't integrate well with the rest of my work (since I do most of my work in tabs of a terminal emulator).

Also, I try to keep as much of my work as I can under version control. Binary formats—anything except text and uncompressed markup languages—don't mix well with version control—and this is worse than you might expect because they're so much bigger than equivalent plain-text files.


  • If you have only the faintest glimmer of what I'm talking about, or you're sending the file to lots of people who aren't like me: Just send the file. If I can't make it work, I'll talk you through producing something I can read.
  • If you have a document where relatively-complex formatting is important or the document in question is a spreadsheet: I suggest OpenDocument (i.e. OpenOffice) format.
  • If your text is all that's important: send me the text; paste it into the email if you must.
  • If you're using the collaborative-editing, comment/review, or version tracking features in what you want me to see: Don't. (Unless you're using LibreOffice as your primary word processor—and even then reconsider.) These features aren't always compatible even between different versions of the same program; they are unlikely to work properly with a different program relying on a reverse-engineered specification for a competitor's format. For commenting on specific parts of a text document, you can simply quote (put > (right-angle-bracket, or greater-than-sign) marks in front of each line that you’re quoting) the relevant parts of the document, then write your comments unquoted below. (Just like standard Net etiquette says you’re supposed to do in email.)

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