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.

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

Plain text vs rich text files explained

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. You might also be interested in our guide on the best audio book file formats.

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.

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.