In school we don't often think too much about file formats when composing a document. We just open our preferred word processing software, type the words we need to complete an assignment, and save our work. Sometimes we print that work out and submit it in class; sometimes we upload the file to Canvas, or Blackboard, or some other software or webpage.
Part of the reason we can be so cavalier about ignoring file formats is that our teachers aren't particularly interested in the digital encoding of our documents—they are only interested in the words that the document contains.
For example, if your history professor asks you to write an essay explaining the causes of the War of 1812 and its effects on cross-Atlantic trade in the subsequent decade, neither s/he nor you care much if you write out and save your answer as a .docx, .rtf, .txt, .odt, .pages, or .pdf file—so long as you can both open the file to read it. Since most students use either Word or Google Docs to create documents for school, and since Canvas plays nicely with those programs, file format is an issue most students need think about only rarely.
In the real world, however, things are more complicated. Your future interactions with coworkers and clients may involve more than just answering history questions. The documents you create could have multiple readers, destinations, and purposes.
A Sample Workflow
For example, in your professional life, you may do a project not unlike the following:
One day, your superior asks you and your team to compose a proposal for a potential client outlining a service your business could provide. You draft the rough outline of the proposal and then share it with your colleagues, each of whom adds to and edits parts of your draft based on their specific expertise. You then compile the edits and send a fresh, clean copy to your boss, who adds his or her own edits and comments before sending it back. You incorporate those revisions, send the proposal around the team one more time for final approvals, and then use your company's style guide to format the final draft according to company standards before transmitting it to its intended audience, the potential client with whom you hope to do business.
Let's discuss each part of this process and how the demands of each step require you to think carefully about the software and file formats you use.
Step 1: Initial Draft
When you sit down to write the first draft of a document and you are the only one who will be working on it, you have absolute freedom to use whatever word processing software and any file format you like. You could use
- a plain text editor like Notepad (for Windows) or TextEdit (for Mac)
- a popular, robust word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Apple Pages
- a boutique, minimalist writing app—there are tons out there°
- the notes app on your laptop or phone
- an email you send to yourself
- dictation software if you don't like to type.
Since you're the only one working with the file, and since of course you can open whatever file format your preferred program uses, you don't have to worry about appeasing anyone else.
Step 2: Collaborating with Teammates
Once it's time to collaborate with others, you have to ensure that the files you share can be used by those you're sharing with and the software you choose is good for collaborative writing.
The first consideration is the file format. If you send a file to a coworker in a format that none of their word processing software recognizes, they can't open, read, or edit your work. Luckily, most word processors can open and create most of the common file types such as these:
- .txt: a plain text file (contains only the typed characters, spaces, and returns with no formatting information)
- .rtf: a rich text file (contains simple formatting information in addition to the words)
- .docx: a Word document (allows complex page layouts and formatting)
- .odt: an OpenDocument document file (like .docx but open source)
A few things to be aware of:
- When you change file formats, sometimes things get a bit screwy. Formatting and special characters (like letters with accents and quotation marks) sometimes don't come out right.
- If you use Apple Pages, the default file format is .pages, which cannot be opened by many other programs.
- Other word processors may or may not use uncommon or proprietary file formats (for example, one I like to use defaults to .md or markdown format)
Ease of Use
The next consideration is ease of use. A plain text file is universally accessible, but it isn't very conducive to collaborative writing—there's no way to track the changes made by various users. Using a boutique word processor might be your preferred way to compose, but if no one else has access to the same software, it can be a bear to constantly be importing and exporting files across various software.
That's why most people prefer to use the two most popular word processors: Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Both of these programs include robust collaborating tools that make sharing a document and composing by committee simple. For example, both programs
- allow multiple users to edit a document simultaneously, each of them controlling a cursor and seeing others' updates in realtime
- allow users to post comments in the margins as well as respond to and resolve other comments
- allow users to directly edit the documents or merely make suggestions (Word calls this "track changes" and Google Docs calls it "Suggesting mode")
Google Docs offers great collaboration tools.
Where Does the File Live?
Once last thing to consider is where the file lives and who controls it. There are two major options:
Send the file back and forth: The older method is to email or otherwise send the file to the other writer(s) so that they have their own copy on their own hard drives. The benefit of this is that it is a closed system, and you don't have to mess around with permissions and sharing links—whoever has a copy of the file controls that copy. The downside is that multiple users cannot edit simultaneously (this is sometimes an upside, though), and you can end up with multiple copies of the same file, each with slight differences.
It's important to establish a file naming system to keep things straight. For example, you might send
Client Contract, 2020 01 14.docx to your coworker on January 14, and, when they update the draft two days later, they change the file name to
Client Contract, 2020 01 16.docx.
Host the file on the cloud: Nowadays it's more common to put the file in a shared location such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive. One benefit here is that you avoid making endless copies of the file—everyone works on the same copy—but the downside is that it can be inconvenient to go back and see what earlier versions looked like. Another benefit is that it enables simultaneous editing and use, but another downside is that it can be confusing to remember and manage who owns the file and who has access to view or to edit.
Step 3: Collaborating with Superiors
When it's time to send the draft to your superior, just remember this: do what that person wants. Maybe your team prefers to work together in Google Docs, but your manager likes Word. If so, you should export your work from Google Docs, import into Word, clean up any discrepancies that pop up, and send it along.
Maybe your team shares a Dropbox folder and finds it super convenient, and it would be easiest for you to just send a link to your boss so he or she can see the file that way. That's fine—if your boss wants it that way. If he or she would rather you attached a copy of the file in an email, then attach away.
Don't make the boss mad!
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
One other thing to consider is how much you want your supervisor to see. If you give him or her access to the original file in Google Docs, he or she will be able to see lingering comments in the margins and maybe even poke into the version history to see who did what. If he or she make edits, those edits go right on the original file. You might prefer to make a clean copy of the work with no visible history so as to present your team's work as a unified product.
Step 4: Document Design
Once all the edits from all the contributors have been incorporated and the supervisor has signed off on the text, some documents get specially formatted for distribution. This is especially true for documents that will go out into the world and represent the company, like the business proposal in the example above.
When you're dinking around in Microsoft Word, you probably don't pay too much attention to the font and margins unless your teacher has specific expectations: Times New Roman, 1-inch margins, and double spacing are the watchwords of academia. But when have you seen a professional document use those things?
Businesses like to brand their materials by using logos, letterhead, and consistent fonts and layouts. Sometimes they employ entire departments to design and format documents for transmission; at other times, they distribute a style guide to help employees do their own formatting.
Plain text editors and minimalist word processors aren't suitable for document design because they do not allow for anything beyond merely typing words (as for a .txt file) or basic formatting of text (as for an .rtf file).
The big word processors can do quite a bit of document design. Microsoft Word and Apple Pages (and, to a lesser extent, Google Docs) are quite capable of manipulating margin sizes, fonts, and layouts, and they can drop in images, tables, and other elements that provide the polish a professional document might need.
For advanced designs that are more complex, require particularly complicated layouts, or are for extremely large or oddly shaped documents, specialized typesetting and document design software might be used. Some of the most popular programs include Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Publisher, and QuarkXPress.
Sample pages from a $30M construction project proposal. This document required a sophisticated layout, so I used Adobe InDesign (for example, notice the cutting guides around the edges—the printer will print on slightly oversized paper and then cut off the edges so the colors go right to the edges). (Click to enlarge)
File Formats and Ease of Use Again
If you know in advance that you'll be working with an editor or designer on the final version of your document, you should keep in mind what file formats and processes will be easiest for them too.
For example, I used to work for a publishing house. The editing team, which I was a part of, collaborated in Word because using the Track Changes and commenting features was convenient. The typesetting team, however, used QuarkXpress to lay out the final magazine and book pages. They would take our finished .docx files and extract the text, importing it into a .qxp file. If the .docx file contained any formatting other than italics and bold or if it used Word's styles functionality, the typesetters had to manually strip out all that formatting before they could do their work. By knowing what the designers did and did not want, we editors could still use our preferred file format and software without making life difficult for them.
Step 5: Transmission to Client
The last step is to send the finalized document to the client.
What Not To Do
Maybe you've noticed this: you spend an hour formatting a Word doc just so before sending it to someone else. You're expecting them to praise your excellent design, but instead they ask, "Why does this document look all wonky?"
See, .docx files are great if you want to lay out a document and then print it at your desk, but they are terrible at transmitting their formatting to another computer. It has to do with the way the information is encoded in the file. For example, you can set all the text in your file to appear in a beautiful font like Futura, and the file will diligently record that. But when you transmit the file, you don't transmit the font itself. If someone else opens the file and their computer doesn't have Futura, their computer will choose another font in its place.
This woman just spent all afternoon formatting her resumé just so—and then accidentally sent it to a potential employer as a .docx file.
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Or maybe you've laid out a gorgeous newsletter using Adobe InDesign. You could send the resulting .indd file out, but only those with InDesign (a very expensive program!) would be able to open it to see the lovely layout you created.
One More File Format
No, when sharing files in which format is crucial, there is a file format that is king: .pdf.
PDF, or Portable Document Format, preserves the exact layout of a document as if it were a picture, making the file display the same way on any computer screen. Unlike a picture, however, PDF preserves the readability of the text—this allows users to search the text for specific words and screen-reading software to read the text. PDF also allows users to create forms that can be digitally filled out, embed links that can be clicked, and other functionality. Best of all, PDF is a common file format, and virtually all Windows PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets come with built-in free software that can open such files (Adobe Reader is a common one, but Windows usually defaults to Edge and Mac defaults to Preview).
The downside to a PDF is that it isn't very editable. If you are still collaborating on the content of a file, PDF is a nightmare, and if you are asking someone to comment and provide feedback on the text of a document, PDF isn't great (though different software offers different functionality).
But in most professional situations where a document is formatted and finalized, .pdf is the appropriate file format to use. It's best for transmitting files electronically, and it is best when sending a document to a printshop for mass production.
Let's do an experiment: Here are links to my CV (a resumé for professors). One is a .docx and one is a .pdf. Technically, they should look exactly the same when opened. Download and open both and compare what you see. Are the fonts the same? Do the pages break at the same places? Are there weird spacing issues in the .docx?
How to Change File Formats
All this talk of file formats is nice, but how do you actually know what format you're using and change it if you need to?
What Format is this File?
Let's say you've already created a file on your computer, and now you're wondering if it's a .docx or a .rtf. How can you find out?
It used to be that your file names would all include an extension° revealing the file format. However, modern operating systems often hide these by default to keep things looking clean. Here's how to find out what you're looking at:
- How to Make Windows Show File Extensions
- How To Show File Extensions in macOS Finder (you can also just highlight the file and press command+i)
Change File Formats in Word
When you have a document open in Word, you can easily save a copy in another file format.
- In the File tab of the ribbon, choose "Save As...."
- Choose an export option.
[note to self: add screenshots here]
On a Mac:
- In the File menu, choose "Save As...."
- In the dialog box that pops up, look for the File Format box near the bottom.
- Click the arrow on the box to see the file format options.
In Word Online (Office 365):
- In the File tab of the ribbon, choose "Save As...."
- Choose "Download as PDF" or "Download as ODT."
- To make other types of files, choose "Download a Copy" and then alter the format using your desktop version of Word.
Download a Google Doc in Different Formats
- In the File menu, choose "Download"
- Choose the file format you want to save to your computer
Each of the methods mentioned above will allow you to create a PDF directly in the word processor. However, please note that once you've made a copy as a PDF, the word processor is no longer the default program to open that copy. If you double click the file on your computer, it'll open with the default PDF reader on your computer.
Yes, collaborating with others—what with dealing with file formats, differences in software, sharing files by email or on the cloud, and naming everything consistently and carefully—is a hassle. It requires thought and extra effort, and you'll rarely get thanked for it. That's just how things work.
Of course, they don't have to work that way—you could start thanking people when they make life easier for you.