Saving as .rtf

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Since I got a few questions on this based on my rant about MSword I thought I would explain in more detail, and set up a series of screenshots to explain the .rtf (Rich Text Format) issue and help those who haven’t heard about this before.

First let me explain the issue a little more clearly than my last post (if you know about file extensions just skip this and go down to the section labeled how-to). When you look at a document name it has two parts, the file name and the extension. The extension tells you what type of format a document is. So for example I was working on Chp. 2 of my dissertation today which is rather boringly named “Chp2”. When I look at the full file name thought it says “Chp2.mel”. The “mel” tells me (and the computer) what type of file this is. “mel” stands for Mellel (the word processor I use). This means the program needs to be able to read “Mellel” to open the document. Think of the extension as the “language” the document is written in, and the program has to speak the appropriate language or it can’t read the document correctly. (Like if I boarded a bus in Thailand, wouldn’t understand a thing.) Now if I am only ever going to use my computer and only want my document to be readable by me and my computer, no worries. The problem is if I send this “Chp2.mel” to my advisors (none of whom have Mellel) when they open the file it is likely to look like it was written in Thai (that’s even if they can open it at all).

Which brings me to MSWord. MSWord documents are saved under a .doc file. So if I had written the aforementioned article in MSWord it would read Chp2.doc. See Microsoft was clever, they titled the extension, .doc to make it seem natural, as if it is any old document, its just a “.doc” file. The problem is .doc is a very specific language, which in fact Microsoft owns. And companies and universities shell out billions to them to be able to have their computers talk in this language. This would not be a problem if it was a good format (language) or if everyone/every computer could read it. But they can’t.

So what’s the solution? Espranto. Or at least the Espranto of computer word processing. .rtf is a type of document that is designed to be read by all word processors. Microsoft Word, Mellel, Nissus Writer, Pages, etc., they can all read this format. (See the Espranto of Word Processing, although way more useful, William Shatner would be so proud.

This way if you save as a .rtf everyone with a computer should be able to read it, in their word processor of choice.

Now for the down side, .rtf doesn’t always preserve a documents formating. 98% of the time it will work, especially for things like school papers. Students just need to know how to get the document into .rtf. And most importantly to quick check to make sure that everything is okay.

.doc files are also much larger than .rtf files, and are far more likely to contain a virus.

(Here is my ideological aside so if you want skip it and go to the how-to.) If academics is about opening up knowledge, sharing ideas etc., than we should get in the process of “speaking“ in a way that is readable by the largest number, not in a language owned by a few. It is simply good pragmatic and ideological practice to share files in a .rtf form.


Okay so how to get this done. It is actually really simple. Most Word Processors will do this rather easily, MSWord included. Let’s take MSWord first. Select Save As from the File Menu (do this instead of just selecting save. Now at the bottom of the pop-up window under the line that says ”File Name“ is a line that says ”Save as type“. This is what you want. Select the arrow, and choose ”Rich Text Format (*.rtf). Done. (Sorry I don’t have a copy of MSWord but if someone wants to send me a screenshot I will put it up here). You can also save it as a .doc file just in case. Now the trick is, just to be sure, after you have saved the file, to close it and re-open it to make sure it looks fine. (Like I said 98% of the time it will be okay)

Some programs actually don’t let you select “save as“, you won’t see this option available. Instead you need to find the option that says ”export“ and export the text as an .rtf. The end result here is the same, it is just a matter of how a particular application is organized. (See screenshot below of Mellel’s export function.


And here is Abi Word (which looks similar to MSWord on the Mac)

As a general rule when students send me digital copies of their papers I require them to be in a .rtf form. This way they learn how to do it, I can be guaranteed to be able to read it, and everybody else can to, this is particularly important for workshopping papers etc.</p>