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Plain and Simple • Use Plain Text in Desktop Publishing

An introduction to ASCII, ANSI and plain text files


Formatted vs. plain text

Formatted (top) vs. plain text (bottom)

Plain text files have no formatting. There is no bold text, italics, drop caps, or other fancy layouts.
Plain text files are very portable. You can save almost any document as a plain text file and import it into other applications — even cross-platform from PC to Mac.

Plain vs. Formatted
Plain text files have characters that can be displayed by virtually any application. Other types of formatted files are meant to be displayed in specific software applications, although some are compatible with many programs. Word processors can store files in plain text and other formats. Desktop publishing applications can import plain text files and some formatted formats such as Microsoft Word .doc files.

Compare the two text examples in the image at the top of the sidebar.
Top: Formatted text in Microsoft Word.
Bottom: Plain text created in Windows Notepad.

Binary and Formatted Files
Have you ever opened a file from someone and it was full of gibberish and random text? It is probably a file that is meant to be opened in some other application. It contains formatting or binary codes ("computer-speak") that only the program that created it can read and understand. To use the file you'll need to find out what program created it or ask the sender to save the file as plain text.

The second image in the photo gallery (sidebar) is a portion of a Microsoft Word .doc file opened in a plain text editor. Those characters and random bits of text found at the beginning, end, or throughout the document are the formatting codes and other characters that applications put into a document. A plain text file won't have those formatting instructions.

Plain text files normally use one of two types of character sets: ASCII or ANSI. DOS uses ASCII (pronounced "ask-key"). ANSI ("an-see") is the character set used by Windows. There are many variations and sub-sets but ASCII and ANSI are virtually identical until you start using some extended characters such as äèö. Sometimes the term ASCII file is used to describe any plain text file.

Using Plain Text
When formatting is not essential and you don't need to include graphics, plain text files are a good bet for exchanging information. Normally TXT is the 3-character PC extension used for plain text files. When you need to use the text from one application and don't need or want the extra formatting, save the file as a plain text file before opening it in the other applicaton.

With a few exceptions, the only way to use a QuarkXPress or Microsoft Publisher file in another desktop publishing program, such as Adobe InDesign, is to export the text portion as a plain text file. You'll have to redo the formatting in the receiving application.

To strip the formatting from a formatted document and convert it to plain text you can use the SAVE AS or EXPORT options in your software. Choose the appropriate file format, usually TEXT or ASCII or ANSI. This will remove all formatting leaving you with just the plain, unadorned text. Text editors such as Windows Notepad automatically save files as plain text.

The Desktop Document > Text Phase > Text Acquisition > Plain Text

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