Don’t send unsolicited Office files!

For some reason, some people still think it’s a good idea to send you Office documents by email. On rare occasions, they’re right. On most occasions they’re wrong, and my heart sinks when I receive them (I’m not alone in this). Let’s start with when they’re right: sometimes it’s reasonable to assume that the recipient will need to edit (or copy and paste from) the document in some way. In that case it’s OK (though see below). In almost all other cases, it’s just annoying.*

Indeed, even when the recipient needs to edit the text you’re sending, or insert it somewhere, it’s often unnecessary to send it as an Office file. If it’s just plain text with no special formatting, it’s usually much better to simply send it as a text file. Even that’s unnecessary in many cases. It’s quite amazing how often one gets sent attached documents when the text contained in them could just have been put in the body of the email. That’s always more convenient.

And if the text has special formatting (so can’t be sent in the body of the email and can’t be sent as a txt, or even rtf, file) and doesn’t need to be edited, there’s a simple rule: convert it to pdf before you send it.

This should start to be seen as a matter of manners. Consider the following:

  • PDF files can be opened by almost anyone with a computer without needing to be converted (PDF readers being available for free, and provided as standard with most new computers);
  • They’re nowhere near as version-dependent;
  • They’re generally quicker and more pleasant to open and read through;
  • They can be read on most e-readers;
  • They usually look more or less the same to sender and recipient—formatting and special characters are much less likely to be garbled;
  • They tend to print with fewer problems (especially from the command line);
  • The Operating System is usually irrelevant;
  • They’re not likely to contain viruses (which can be hidden in macros in Office files);
  • With modern software, it is easy and fast to convert Office files to PDF.

In view of all this, if you ever need to send someone a file, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the text reasonably short and without any special formatting? If so, put it in the body of the email.
  2. If this can’t be done:
    1. Is the recipient expected merely to read or refer to the text? If so, convert it to PDF before sending.
    2. If not, and the recipient is expected to edit or copy and paste the text, then:
      1. Is the formatting unimportant? If so, send a plain text (or at most a rich text) file.
      2. Does the formatting matter? If so, make sure what kind of file the recipient is likely to prefer and, where possible, send that.

To sum up: if you’re sending something to someone and they haven’t told you specifically that they’d prefer it as a Word document, an Excel document, a Works document, a Pages document, a LaTeX file, or other such formats, then you should most likely check before you send any of these. Powerpoint is an exception only because it’s fiddlier to convert to PDF if you have animations. Even then, however, it’s safer and more considerate to do so.

*^I’m not just talking about Office files, by the way. They just happen to be the most common format. Files written in Pages, or Works Word Processor (someone sent me one of those, amazingly without apology, only a couple of years ago), for example, are just as bad. For simplicity, I’ll refer only to Office files here.



Filed under Advice, Thoughts and rants

2 responses to “Don’t send unsolicited Office files!

  1. Justin

    You really shouldn’t be sending anything in a secret, proprietary format like an Office document. Richard Stallman explains why, and what you can do about it:

  2. Yes, I didn’t even get into this issues explicitly. But it really is clear that we all have to stop sending and requesting such files unless we have not only prior consent from the other party (as consent can be grudging), but prior agreement on both sides that that’s actually preferable for some reason.

    And such cases, where it is preferable, should be viewed as exceptional. That Word should be seen as the default is just bad.

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