Richard Salsbury's Home Page

Save It!

Richard Salsbury

Wouldnít it be nice if there was just one way of storing a word processing document? Wouldnít it be nice if all word processing programs could open and save these files?
     So much for wishful thinking! Software companies want you to use their own format because it ties you to their products - switching programs can mean having to convert all of your old files to a new format, which can be a lot of bother. And if you havenít got the old program any more then you may not be able to open your old files at all.
     A file format can be identified by the letters after the dot in the filename (also known as the "extension"). The extensions for the four biggest word processors are:
  • Microsoft Word document (.doc)
  • Lotus Word Pro document (.lwp)
  • Corel Word Perfect document (.wpd)
  • Sun StarOffice Writer document (.sdw)
     You can therefore tell that a file called, for example, "story.sdw" is a document stored in Sun StarOffice Writer format. This may not mean much to you as a writer, but itís very important to the computer: if you tried to open this file in Lotus Word Pro, either it wouldnít work at all, or it would display gibberish instead of your literary masterpiece.
     This isnít always the case - some word processors are capable of dealing with other companiesí file formats (StarOffice will open Microsoft Wordís ".doc" files, for instance), but it varies from program to program. To make matters worse, some programs will attempt to open one of these "foreign" file formats, but wonít make a very good job of it, leaving you to tidy the thing up before you can use it again.
     Not a happy state of affairs, and one that causes more than a bit of confusion!
     However, all is not lost. There are a number of file formats that arenít owned by any single company or used exclusively by any one program. They are:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • HTML (.htm or .html)
  • Rich Text Format (.rtf)
     Plain text is just that: raw letters and numbers. If you save a file in .txt format it will store it without any of the frills you might expect from a modern word processor: different text sizes, bold, italics, aligning text at the centre or the right-hand side, and many others. All these things will be skipped, so that when you re-open the file, it will look like itís come straight out of a manual typewriter. Plain text is almost good enough for fiction, but you find yourself missing the ability to centre your title, or use italics when your characters are screaming at each other.
     HTML (HyperText Markup Language - donít ask) is a standard format for describing web pages on the internet. It does do all the things mentioned above that plain text ignores, and so it might seem an ideal format for storing your work. Unfortunately, it falls down on its handling of paragraphs: it doesnít start them with an indent (tab), and it insists on putting a gap between them, making things look distinctly odd compared to printed fiction and articles.
     This leaves RTF or Rich Text Format. This also saves all those features that plain text doesnít, and unlike HTML, it does format your paragraphs the way a writer generally wants them: indents at the start and no gaps in between. Even better, RTF can be opened and saved in almost every single word processor currently available (including all of the "big four" mentioned above). If you want to (or have to) change your word processor, you can open your RTF files straight away, without having to mess about with them.
     A bonus with using RTF is that all versions of Windows from Windows 95 come with a very simple word processor that will allow you to edit RTF files. Itís called WordPad and you can find it by pressing the Start button and going to the "Programs > Accessories" menu. WordPad lacks niceties like spell checking and a word count, but in an emergency (or if you need to work on someone elseís PC) you can call on it for basic editing tasks.
     If you decide to use Rich Text Format to save your work, there are a few things you should be aware of. First of all, RTF wonít save some of the more complex elements in a file, chief amongst them being indexes, tables of contents, outline numbering, cross-references and footnotes. Graphics and tables can also be a bit dodgy, although you may find you get away with them. As a rule of thumb, fiction, poetry and articles should be fine; academic or business work (or anything involving lots of tables or diagrams) should probably be saved in a different format.
     When saving in RTF, some word processors will warn you that you might lose data. Donít panic! Usually the program doesnít know this for a fact - it makes as assumption to be on the safe side. You can see for yourself whether itís safe by doing the following:
  1. Save your file as you normally would.
  2. Save your file again in Rich Text Format (select "Save As..." and change the field labelled "Save as type" so that it reads "RTF" or "Rich Text Format").
  3. Close the file in your word processor.
  4. Re-open the RTF file. Does it look the same as it did before?
  5. Then RTF is ideal for your purposes.
     Of course, if youíre using a format other than RTF and youíve got a guaranteed way of getting at your data even if disaster strikes, thereís little point in switching formats. However, you might want to consider saving your work twice: once to the hard drive as you normally would, using whatever file format your word processor favours, followed by a backup (you DO backup, donít you?) on a floppy disk using RTF format. This gives you the best of both worlds: a copy on your PC that your word processor will like, and a copy on a removable disk that you can use anywhere, on any PC, even if your own computer decides to conk out.

About me
About this site