Having covered some bigger topics, I decided to write this simple plain text vs. rich text comparison post, within which I’ll try to explain both types, which is the best, and when it is good to use either file type.
A plain text file is as plain as they come, it has no text formatting; which means no font sizes and colors, bolding or italics, or other types of markup.
All it has are plain text, line breaks, and spacing. That’s all!
A rich text file, which is the default format for Microsoft Word and similar popular word processors, is as the name suggests is richer and allows formatting.
Let’s compare the two, but before we get to that part, let me briefly explain an RTF file.
What is an RTF File
This is a cross-platform document file format with better text adjustability than plain text files.
This file format allows the user to perform several formatting tasks, such as font sizes and colors, bolding, italics, and others.
Being a cross-platform file means that RTF allows the exchange of text files between different editors. RTF is the default format of popular word processors like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Apple Pages and Notes, and many others.
What is Plain Text
In layman’s terms, plain text is any text that isn’t formatted or unformatted documents. It doesn’t have any special formatting (i.e., downloadable font types, font sizes, bold font, or italics).
Plain text only uses standard characters, and they are available on almost any application used for typing.
Rich Text Files vs. Plain Text Files: The Differences between Them
There are several differences between rich text files and plain text files—most of which have to do with formatting—and here are some of them:
While RTF supports the inclusion of JPEG, PNG, Enhanced Metafile (EMF), Windows Metafile (WMF), Apple PICT, and other picture formats, plain text files do not.
Although some of these picture types might not be supported on a few RTF readers and won’t be displayed, most RTF writers usually convert an unsupported picture type to a supported picture type.
To go around this picture format compatibility issue, writers include the same picture in two different picture types in one document—there’s a higher chance of one format being a supported type.
Most word processing software and email platforms support the RTF format importing, and this makes it a cross-platform format; on the other hand, plain text can be used on almost all systems without a single issue. This is also one of the main differences between rich text formats and plain text files.
Most applications that read RTF files can read many RTF dialects, including the ones unknown to them. Documents with foreign dialects still display basic formatting elements such as bold, italics, text underlining and alignment, font specification, and document margins.
If I were to give the two types of files an interoperability score, I’d give RTF 87% percent and Plain text files would get 98%.
Applications that handle rich text files allow users to import objects such as tables or charts from spreadsheet applications.
Although these objects are not widely supported in some RTF programs, they are available on Windows and Mac word processors.
The RTF processing programs also allow the drawing of objects or shapes, such as rectangles, ellipses, lines, arrows, and polygons.
If you have used a plain .txt file processor, you know that the best you do is objects (whether drawn or imported) are out of the question.
This is Why Should You Use Plain Text
1. Ease of use
Plain text files do not come with any complicated structures or appurtenances, and this characteristic makes them easy to use.
There is an almost flat learning curve and it’s extremely easy to type for the first time. You don’t have to worry about format, shortcuts, or format—just type away!
And plain text files don’t require third-party apps as most operating systems have built-in applications for making .txt files
What I like about plain text files is that they are portable and work with practically almost any operating system.
I already touched on this when I compared the interoperability of RTF and plain text.
I already gave it 98% because plain text files can be used on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and all Linux distros.
This means that “compatibility issues” don’t exist for .txt files and can be opened by pretty much any document or text creation software.
3. Plain Text Files Are Fast
I do not think there’s a 21st-century computer that can struggle with .txt files or .txt processing software.
The case is slightly different for word processors that can handle RTF because they’re built to handle more complex features like tables, pictures, and macros.
Being without all features, .txt files open quickly and easily. Plus, .txt files are smaller in size than other file types, making them easier to transfer. That is not all, operating systems find it easier to index plain text files, and this means they’ll show up faster in system-wide searches.
4. Not Distractive
With plain text, you neither waste time looking at fancy formatting features nor on extra grammar and spell checking features.
The text is simple, all you have to do is write! Nothing else.
This is Why You Shouldn’t Use Plain Text
If you’re writing official documents, writing a blog post for instant publishing, writing an academic assignment that needs some diagrams and objects, or if you need to craft a story with elaborate formatting; don’t use plain text.
In fact, plain text should only be used for small documents that you can format later.
Final Words on Rich Text vs. Plain Text
Choosing between rich text and plain text is a matter of convenience—when you want to write quickly and easily without any distractions, plain text is a better option.
They’re also perfect if you want to access the document on various applications or operating systems.
On the other hand, rich text is convenient when you want to format and style your document— Google Docs, Scrivener, Word, and Co are popular because they have features for handling rich text.
As long as you know the benefits, stick to your cup of tea.