Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: Explained

This article pits plain text vs rich text and explains when to use either file type.

Plain text or .txt files are a simple and practical format that belongs in every writer or blogger’s workflow.

A plain text file is a document that contains no formatting, images, colors or other types of markup. It also includes single line breaks and spacing.

A rich text file is the default format of popular word-processors like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages and Notes, a Google Doc, and even HTML emails.

Here are five unexpected benefits of plain text files.

Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: Explained

1. You Don’t Have to Worry if People Can Open Them

You don’t need special software or tools to open a plain text file. This is a real problem for certain formats, as those who have tried to open a .docx file on older versions of Word understand.

It’s not always possible for various word processing applications to open certain file types.

If the file format is plain text, you’re guaranteed that anyone can open them on any system. Plain text files have been around longer than many operating systems, and they’re not going anywhere.

2. Plain Text Files are Light and Fast

Older computers can struggle with the latest word processors. Tables, pictures and macros can bog down large documents, as can pages of text. On the other hand, text files lack all these kind of fancy features and, for this reason, they open quickly and easily.

They’re also smaller in size than proprietary word processing files, making them easier to email and share with others. And it’s easier for operating systems to index plain text files, which means they appear quicker in system-wide searches.

3. It’s Quicker to Write Something Short in a Plain Text Editor

Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: Explained
Plain text can be a quick way to write

Word, Pages and the various other word processors feature a wealth of templates, options, tools and menus designed for complex jobs.

Sometimes all a writer needs is somewhere to type, a spell checker and some basic formatting options.

All of those menus, ribbons and inspectors can be distracting. And they slow writing down. TextEdit, Notepad and Vim deserve some love.

And there are plenty of other plain text editors that are just as good looking as their proprietary big brothers.

4. Plain Text Files are Flexible

You can easily copy and paste the contents of a plain text file into any document or application. It’s not possible to say the same about specialist applications that use proprietary databases or formats.

I sometimes write up articles in plain text and copy and paste the results into Grammarly (read our Grammarly review). Then, I worry about formatting.

In other words, if it’s in plain text to begin with, it’s easy to migrate to a more complex application. If it’s in a complex application to begin with, it’s a lot more time-consuming to go back to plain text.

5. Plain Text Always Looks the Same

You can spend hours formatting a document in a word processor, only for someone else to open it and find it looks slightly different on their machine.

The format of a plain text file looks the same on any system.

Granted plain text editors lack complex formatting options but these are often features that aren’t needed until the document is near completion.

When you’re at this stage, you should consider exporting the document to a PDF.

Tip: Use Markdown While Writing Plain Text

Markdown is way of formatting plain text documents for the web using the following characters:

  • Asterix for italics
  • Double asterix for italics
  • A single hashtag for H1
  • A double hashtag for H2
  • and so on

You can write in a plain text file as usual and then copy it to a rich text editor. Many of these will recognize Markdown and apply formatting appropriately. This workflow works well with the WordPress Gutenberg editor.

It’s a type of markup language. Check out the full list of Markdown syntax.

Alternatively, use an app like IA Writer or Byword. It’ll save your work as plain text. But, you can copy across a pre-formatted document if written in Markdown.

The Final Word: Plain Text Vs Rich Text:

If you want to write something quickly and easily and copy and paste it into various applications, opt for plain text. When you’re ready to format and style your document, opt for rich text. If you use Google Docs and Word Extensively, stick with rich text.

Want to learn more? Check out our list of the best writing apps.

Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: FAQS

What is the difference between rich text and plain text?

A plain text document lacks any formatting, colors, images, styles and media. It’s typically a .txt file. Rich text documents includes all of these.

What is rich text format used for?

People use rich text for format and style a document. It’s also used when someone wants to add other media like imagery.

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7 thoughts on “Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: Explained”

  1. I am a firm believer in the use and discimination of plain text files. I think that they’re the greatest things since sliced bread!

    People really don’t realize just how universal they really are because people are programmed to believe that complicated is actually better. That is why you have so many people who sware by Microsoft Word and such.

    However, what people don’t realize is that plain text files can be read on any system, and even on smart phones whereas word processor files will have a huge problem in these areas.

    If you think about it, when you text someone, you’re texting in plain text. You’re not using specialized fonts and such. Everything is sent in plain text format without any fancy formatting, and you receive the same in plain text just as well.

    Ebook authors should really think about placing their books in plain text rather than in proprietary file formats because like I said earlier, text files are universal, and they can be read on any system.

    Ebook files whatever their format have to be read on dedicated devices, and are filled with all kinds of markup and protective measures to prevent piracy.

    I have a saying that goes something like this..

    If it can be heard, watched or read, then it can be copied.

    You see, all those protection schemes are really a huge waste of time and money. Just because the file is so-called copy protected doesn’t mean that it can’t be rewritten by the one reading it, and the same can be said for video and audio too, but that’s another story.

    Plain text files are so simple that anyone can create them. There are really no specialized skills needed to create them. Just open up a plain text editor such as Windows Notepad if you’re on a Windows system, or Text Edit, if you’re on a Mac, and begin typing; that’s it. Then it is a matter of just saving the file to wherever you want to save it to, and whala! You have a plain text file.

    So seriously think about using plain text for everything that you do on the computer. You’ll be glad that you did because plain text files are easy to create, easy to load, and can be viewed anywhere.

    1. Hi Donald,

      I agree with a lot of your points.

      I use plain text editors for short documents and for writing on the go. I use apps like Scrivener for more involved projects. Plain text files are great for people who need something simple and reliable.

      If you’re a power user on a Mac who loves plain text, I recommend checking out nValt. It can help you manage a library of plain text files.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Donald.

  2. …complex jobs.

    Sometimes all a writer needs is somewhere to type, a spell checker and some basic formatting options.

    Sometimes all a writer needs is somewhere to type, a spell checker and some basic formatting options.

    All of those…

    First time on the site, so I’m obviously here for a reason. However, I wanted to point this out, in case you’d like to correct it for future readers. 😉

  3. I am a firm believer in using plain text files. I absolutely hate word processing programs especially Microsoft Word due to its clunkiness and overpowering structure and such. There’s just too much going on at the same time with Microsoft word and similar programs.

    However, writing in plain text is really cool because you get to pay more attention to what is being written rather than what it all looks like. I believe that if you have to use a word processor such as Microsoft word, then you should strongly think about saving a copy of your work into plain text format so that your work will become future proof meaning that it will be able to be opened easily in some future application. Oh, and did I mention that plain text is the most portable document format as well?

    That’s right, plain text is even more portable than PDF. Just thought that I would throw that in for good measure.

  4. I am a firm believer in using plain text files. I use them all of the time. They will far outlast all of the other fancy file formats that are around today.

    I personally think that all e-books and such should be in plain text format so that they can be read on multiple e-readers and such. All of that DRM stuff is just a waste of time and money to be honest with you. Text files absolutely rule! They’re totally portable, easy to read and quick to load on a computer. They’re not filled with all that unnecessary styling garbage and stuff like that. It is just the raw information.

  5. I am a firm believer in plain text. A matter of fact, when I create an audio book using Amazon Polly, or even Net Vocalizer from Amazon, I always provide the plain text version of the audio book along with it so that those that listen to the book can follow along with the plain text version of that same book.

    Plain text is just that simple, and like was mentioned, there are no special tools that you need in order to read them either. Text files are the simplest form of digital written communication there is and for good reason. I have yet to figure out why so many people are all so worried about special fonts, and layout structures when plain text is really the easiest file format to read.

    So if I were you, I would definitely begin using plain text in whatever you do.

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