You've got this document that you want to send to someone via the internet (whether that be email, through a webpage, or something else), how do you send it so that the recipient will be able to read it?
|Most common options||Rating|
|Word processor documents||Terrible choice.|
|PDF files||Problematical choice.|
|HTML||Good, if you're putting the information on a website.|
|Plain text||The most compatible option for emailing.|
Well, don't send a word processor document. They might be able to handle it, but there's no guarantee that they will. Firstly, you don't know what the recipient has available to them. And secondly, they may not be able to install more software (they may not be allowed to, or mayn't be technically able to, or mayn't be financially able to, just to name three reasons).
It's a common misconception that everyone can handle a Word doc file. Not everybody can, even when they are already using Microsoft Windows. Word is an expensive program that isn't included with all versions of Windows. Its document file format isn't always compatible with other programs. And even if the recipient has got a program that can open your file, they still mayn't be able to read it, or read it very well. Word processor document files are meant for you to be able to save a file, and do more “work” on it, on the same program—that work could be more editing, or printing it, etc. It's files will be suited for the configuration of your computer and your printer.
We frequently see documents that would print past the edges of the paper in our printer, print too close to the edges of the page onto the part of the paper that can't be printed on, has madly scrambled content because your margins are different and the program has squashed the content in to fit, has incredibly hard to read fonts because we don't have the one that you used or you used an awful one, or the document has yet other problems…
If you absolutely must send a word processor document file, then don't just save the file and send it. Not only will you be sending it in its least-compatible manner, you may be revealing information you don't want published (recipients can undo edits, and view things you didn't expect them to be able to see). You should use an “export” or “publish” feature, that removes hidden information, includes any extra files that you might have used (images, fonts, etc.), giving you a different public version of your document for distribution. Though this is still sending a word processor file when you probably shouldn't.
There's a few common reasons why people want to send such files:
They think everyone can handle it, it never occurred to them that some people can't.
They're unaware that there's any other ways.
They think they need to send the document formatted in a special way, where the recipient really only needs to be able to read words typed on a page, and formatting is actually irrelevent.
They really do need to send a formatted document, that will print in the same way for all recipients.
If you really must send a document that prints the same for everyone, then PDF is a better option (not a perfect solution, but generally a better one). For one thing, it's designed for this purpose, free PDF generation is available for a lot of computer system types (it's often available as a “print document as a PDF file” option), and free PDF reader software is available for just about all computer systems. But making use of it also has problems:
Some recipients will have to install new software to read it, and they mayn't be able to do so for the same reasons as outlined before (e.g. they're not allowed to, or unable to).
It's geared towards making printouts of the file—not everybody has a printer, and PDFs aren't always easy to read on the computer monitor screen.
If you're putting the document as something to be read off the internet, then using the language of webpages, HTML, is the way to go. The recipients can read it, and print it, just the same as they can with any other webpage. And just about everybody who can receive email also can read webpages. A benefit to publishing a page on a website is that you can edit it, and make corrections, right up to the last moment.
But it's not without some problems, though probably less worse problems than the alternatives discussed above:
The HTML that some people create is abysmal. This is an authoring issue, that isn't too difficult to overcome (use a better program, or stick to making simpler documents).
Some web browsers do not do a good job of printing (they're usually quite acceptable, just not fantastic).
It's not always wise to send someone an email written using HTML, as not all mail programs can handle it, or handle it well (but most do fairly well, with simple HTML, these days). Emailing your recipients a plain message which includes an address to go to is usually fine, though (e.g. a short email notifying them that this month's notices have been published on the website, and telling them the address).
If you're emailing someone, then plain text is the best way to send it. You can just type the message into your mail program, or you can copy and paste the text into it from somewhere else (e.g. from previously typed-up minutes from a meeting). All email clients read plain text messages, they can just read the email as it is, there's no need to load the document into something else to read or print it.
There are some drawbacks, though none as bad as options mentioned above.
The message will be only plain text, with no fancy graphics, or formatting, etc.
Some mail programs don't print too well. But they're usually more than acceptable, and certainly easier than trying to read some word processor document that got badly scrambled.