Please don't send me Microsoft Word documents

Most likely you have been directed to this document because you have attempted to e-mail me a document in Microsoft Word format. I would like to explain to you why I am probably not able to access this document, why you should reconsider sending Word documents to people, and what better alternatives are available for document exchange over the Internet.

Why it's a bad idea to send Microsoft Word documents

Microsoft Word documents cannot always be read by other word processors.
The specification for Microsoft Word documents is a closely-guarded secret, and as such only software from Microsoft is capable of reading Word files correctly. People who use other word processors, either by choice or by necessity, may be unable to open Word documents. It is unfair to assume that everyone to whom you send a Word document has Microsoft Word, or to expect them to buy it in order to read your document. In fact, Microsoft has deliberately decided not to publish versions of its word processor for many of the world's most popular operating systems, so buying the software is not even an option for many people.
In 2008, the latest version of the Microsoft Word file format, Office Open XML (OOXML), was published as an official standard by the international standards body ISO. In theory this will allow the developers of other word processors to update their software to work with these newer OOXML Word files. However, there are a number of technical and legal problems, and defects in the standard itself, which make this difficult or impossible. (In fact, even the current version of Microsoft Word itself does not fully support the OOXML standard.) For this reason OOXML cannot be seen as a solution to the problem of interoperability; OOXML is also subject to most of the same problems described later in this document.
Documents produced with one version of Microsoft Word cannot always be read by other versions of Microsoft Word.
Even if the person to whom you are sending a Word document does indeed have Microsoft Word, he or she still might be unable to read it. Because the Word file format is not standard and fixed, Microsoft can, and in fact often does, change it from time to time. As a result, documents saved with one version of Word often cannot be opened with previous versions of Word. Many people believe that Microsoft does this in an effort to force users of old versions to buy the latest version, even when they are otherwise content with the older version and have no reason to "upgrade".
Microsoft Word documents are not guaranteed to look and print the same way on every computer and printer.
Contrary to what you might expect from Word's supposedly WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") interface, a document produced with Word on one computer may, in fact, end up with radically different formatting and pagination even when viewed with the same version of Word on another computer! The reason for this is that Microsoft Word will silently reformat a document based on the user's printer settings. This is bad news for certain kinds of documents, such as forms, which rely on elements precisely positioned on a page.
Microsoft Word documents are extremely large compared to other file formats.
The Word file format is bloated and inefficient; documents are often many orders of magnitude larger than the amount of text they contain. Even in today's age of ample hard drives, a large collection of Microsoft Word files can quickly eat up one's available disk space. For the millions of people who still use telephone dialup for their Internet connection, receiving Word files in e-mail can mean minutes to hours of waiting for the documents to download. Compare this to the mere seconds it would take to transfer the equivalent amount of information as plain text.
Sending Microsoft Word files can violate your privacy.
Microsoft Word is often configured by default to automatically track and record changes you make to a document. What many people do not realize is that this record of changes is actually silently embedded in the file every time you save your document. When you send such a document to a third party, it is a trivial matter for them to recover this log and see how the document appeared several revisions ago. Thus compromising or confidential information you thought you removed from a document before sending it may in fact still be accessible to the recipient. Indeed, there have been at least a few high-profile cases of confidential information being leaked via publically-posted Word documents.
Microsoft Word files are a security hazard.
Unlike standard data formats, Word files can contain programming code which can be executed by your computer automatically when the document is opened. Microsoft's motivation for including this "feature" in Word was to allow word processing macros to be saved along with the document. However, it was not long before malicious people began exploiting this design flaw by writing Word macro code to surreptitiously delete random files or otherwise damage one's computer. As a result, Word files are now notorious as the vector for dozens of computer viruses. When you receive a Word attachment by e-mail, do you really want to take the risk of welcoming a proverbial (and in computing terms, literal) Trojan horse into your system?

Most of the preceding arguments apply not only to Microsoft Word, but also to other proprietary word processors, such as WordPerfect. However, Word attachments in particular are rapidly and unfortunately becoming more and more popular among Internet users, most of whom do not realize the problems they cause. Fortunately, the problem of sending proprietary file formats is not difficult to work around, and does not require you to stop using Microsoft Word.

Alternatives to sending Word files

Plain text
Unless your document actually requires special fonts or formatting, consider simply typing it (or copy-and-pasting it) directly into the e-mail you are sending. This way nobody needs to open up a separate program to read your document.
HTML is a text-based format commonly used for writing web pages and other electronic documents. Its ability to be edited and its status as an open standard make it ideal for document exchange. HTML documents are not intended to be displayed exactly the same way on every system, though, so if the physical page layout is important, consider sending a Postscript, PDF, or RTF file instead.
Postscript or PDF (Adobe Acrobat)
If you are sending a document which has extensive formatting and is intended to be printed out, and which you do not expect the recipient to have to or want to modify, consider sending a Postscript or PDF file. These two file formats are fully and publically documented, and programs to read them are widely available for a variety of computing platforms. Unlike with Microsoft Word files, Postscript and PDF files will always display exactly the same on the recipient's system as on yours. One important caveat with these file formats, though, is that they are "read only"; there's no easy way for the recipient to edit the documents himself.
Rich Text Format (RTF)
In cases where the document makes use of special formatting and you expect the recipient to edit it, you may wish to send a Rich Text (RTF) file instead of a Word file. RTF was developed as a standard data interchange format for word processors, and most popular word processors can read and write such files. RTF may not preserve physical formatting exactly, but unlike with HTML, it at least tries to specify physical presentation rather than leaving it entirely up to the recipient's application.
OpenDocument Format (ODF)
OpenDocument is another standard data interchange format. First published in 2006, it is a much newer and more modern specification than RTF, and as such supports a wider range of formatting styles and techniques. It also has the advantage of being adopted as an official international standard by ISO. Most modern word processors (with the notable exception of Microsoft Word) support the OpenDocument standard.

Converting Word documents to other formats

Converting your Word documents to one of the above formats is easy. In many cases, you can simply use the Save As command from the File menu; somewhere in the dialog window that appears will be a drop-down box allowing you to select the file format.

If you want to send a document as plain text, a quick alternative to resaving it is to simply select the document text with the mouse cursor or with EditSelect All, copy it to the clipboard (EditCopy), and then paste it into an e-mail in your mail program (EditPaste).

PDF and Postscript are not typically in the list of formats Microsoft Word can export to. However, some systems are configured to allow you to produce PDF files through the Print command. To see if your system supports this, activate the Print command from the File menu and look through the list of available printers for one whose name indicates it produces PDF or Acrobat files.

You can help put an end to Word attachments

Besides not sending them yourself, you can spare others the grief of dealing with proprietary document formats by encouraging people not to send them to you. If you receive a Word attachment in your e-mail, please send the sender a politely worded reply indicating why Word attachments are inappropriate and requesting the document in an alternative format. So as not to waste the sender's time, keep the message brief, but include the address of a web page where they can receive a fuller explanation if they wish. Feel free to cite this document, or one of the ones I've listed below; you could even write up and then refer to a helpful web page containing an explanation in your own words. (Take care, however, that your write-up is suitable for a non-technical audience.)

For the same or similar reasons, many other people cannot or will not accept Word attachments. Here are links to the explanations some of them have also posted:

Aside: the problem with word processors in general

The purpose of this article is not to promote the use of any one word processor over another, but rather to promote the use of standardized, efficient formats for exchange of written information. To that end, please consider dispensing with word processors altogether as a means of producing written communication. An inherent problem with the word processor paradigm is that it conflates the tasks of composition (fixing one's ideas into words in a logically and semantically structured document) and typesetting (determining the superficial physical appearance of a document, via, for example, margin and font settings). This lack of distinction is a cause or contributing factor to many of the problems discussed in this article, along with a great number of problems not related to the exchange of documents over the Internet.

Fortunately, there exist a number alternative document preparation systems which enforce a healthy separation between composition and typesetting. Most of these systems are unencumbered by the problems of proprietary file formats, and can produce output in a variety of standard formats such as PDF and HTML.

For more information on the problems of the word processor and WYSIWYG paradigms:

Here are links to some Free document preparation programs which do not use the word processing paradigm:

  • LaTeX is extremely popular among authors of technical and scientific documents, though it can be used for almost any form of publishing. It does not include a graphical interface, which you may find either liberating or daunting. There are commercial and non-commercial LaTeX versions available for all popular computing platforms, including MS-Windows, Mac OS, GNU/Linux, and Unix.
  • LyX is a document processor similar to LaTeX, but with a user-friendly graphical WYSIWYM ("What You See Is What You Mean") interface. It was originally developed for Unix-like systems, but has been ported to MS-Windows and OS/2.
  • TeXmacs is a graphical scientific editor for Unix-like systems (including MS-Windows with the Cygwin environment). It integrates well with many existing toolkits for mathematics, statistics, and physics.
  • DocBook provides a system for writing structured documents using SGML or XML. It enjoys considerable popularity among print book publishers, authors of software documentation, and writers of FAQs and other technical websites.
  • ConTeXt is a text-based document preparation system similar to LaTeX.

Translations of this page

A version of this article appears in the following publication:
  1. Tristan Miller. Please don't send me Microsoft Word documents. Nonprofit Online News Journal, pages 66–71, September 2006. ISSN 1545-1437.