The Plain Truth About "Plain Text"
By Bev Howard, January 2012
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Computer Forums are diverse communities of people not only from different backgrounds, and, made up of many people using a wide variety of computer equipment and software to participate and communicate within the forum.

As a result, messages posted on large forums may be difficult to impossible to read by some participants because these posts are made using software that assumes that the content will be "rich text" which may not be readable on some systems.  Some email software, notably Microsoft's offerings such as Windows Live Mail use formats which make reading what they create difficult on other systems.

These differences often result with some users' systems showing "garbage" or "box" characters within forum messages which are actually formatting commands or "special" characters used by some editors.

Ironically, these postings often leave the creator of these messages unaware of the problems they create since their software displays what they have written exactly as they expect it to appear, so they never see the unreadable, scrambled or disappearing lines that other readers have to cope with.

The easiest solution is to use a "Lowest Common Denominator" message approach that assures that everyone  will be able to read messages without any difficulty or dependence on special software to display messages correctly.

That solution is to compose and reply to forum messages using "Plain Text" ...the equivalent of using an old manual typewriter.  No fancy fonts, no size options, no italics, just words, numbers and punctuation.  99.99% of all forum messages can be communicated effectively using these limits, and, if you want to SHOUT, just use "all caps"

Unfortunately, as computers, software, the web and operating systems evolve, using plain text is becoming difficult.  What follows is information on how to assure that the messages you send to forums will be in plain text, easily readable by everyone.

The following screen shots show screens from three popular web based email composing interfaces plus three of the most used PC based email software programs with pointers on how to "toggle" the composition to "Plain Text"  You can click your EMail method to jump directly to it's section.

Web Mail
PC Mail
GMail Web
Yahoo Web

Windows Live

Windows Live
PC Client

Gmail Web

With GMail's Web Interface, there is no setting option to set "Plain Text" as your default mode.  In addition, GMail confuses the issue as it "chooses" either "Plain Text" or "Rich Text" depending on a variety of factors, and, rather than showing you the format being used, GMail simply shows you the option to "toggle" to the other format.

The following example shows that the message is currently being composed using "Rich Text" and offers the option to toggle to "Plain Text"

The warning that appears when clicking "Plain Text" can be ignored.

Yahoo Web

With Yahoo's Web Interface, there is no setting option to set "Plain Text" as your default mode.

Within each message being edited, Yahoo shows you the option to "toggle" to the other format at the right of the attachments bar.

Windows Live Web

With Window's Live Web Interface, there is no setting option to set "Plain Text" as your default mode.

Window's Live offers a "pull down" to "select" to the format for the current message or response being edited.

EMail Software Installed on PC's
(EMail "Clients")


While Outlook may be the most used email software, it was written for techies by techies and it's options are often well hidden and difficult to track down and set for your own needs.

When composing a new message or reply, the following shows how to select "Plain Text" for each specific message.

Outlook also has the option to set a "default" format for all messages that you create in it's Tools/Options menu as shown below.

When set as shown above, all messages will be composed in "Plain Text" unless you select another format when composing the message as shown in the first Outlook screen above.

Most EMail Client software has the option to specify what message format will be used for messages addressed to specific contacts in your email contact list.  Outlook has this, but it's not easy to find.

To set the preferred format for a specific contact in Outlook's contact list;
Open the contact for editing
<doubleclick> the contact's EMail address
Then set the format for that specific contact as shown below

Outlook 2007 ...and up?

The newer versions of Outlook confuse things even further with a completely different "ribbon" rather than traditional menus.

Here's how to set the message format to Plain Text in an Outlook 2007 compose message window.


Mozilla ThunderBird

The "Mozilla Mail" email client comes in a a number of forms, the best known of which is named "ThunderBird" but it is also included in Mozilla Suites such as SeaMonkey.  The different user interfaces are very similar, so the following uses ThunderBird examples which are similar or identical to the other Mozilla Mail variants.

ThunderBird offers the option for setting the default message format for each EMail "Account" 

In the menu bar, look under Tools or Edit for "Account Settings"  Then select "Compos...." which will bring up the following screen.

Once this is set, each time you create a new message or compose a reply, you will be given the default mail format edit screen.  For example, that screen will not have any font or other formatting options.

If, however, you want to "toggle" to the alternate, non default, message format, simply hold the <shift> key down when you click "Write" or "Reply"  For example, if you have HTML unchecked as shown above, holding down the shift key when clicking one of these buttons will start a compose window with text formatting and other html options.

Thunderbird also has the option to specify what format will be used for messages addressed to specific contacts in your email contact list. 

To set the preferred format for a specific contact in Thunderbird's Address Book, open the contact for editing, then select the format for emails addressed to that contact as shown below.

Note that if you have a contact set to a specific format, you can still compose messages to them in the other format by <shift> clicking the write or reply buttons.

Windows Live PC

When composing a new message or replying to a message using the Windows Live Software on your PC, there is a format selection option near the center of the compose window toolbar as shown below.

As with most other PC based EMail software, Windows Live EMail Software software offers the option to set "Plain Text" as your default message format. 

To change the default message format, click on the dropdown menu icon at upper left corner of Windows Live Main Main Page.

Then click on Options/Mail to display the Options Window.
(steps 1, 2 & 3)

Then click on the ‘Send’ tab and select desired default ‘Mail Sending Format’ in the lower half of the window, and click "OK"

Noice that the "include message" (full quoting) and "same format" options have also been unchecked.

Other EMail Options

There are many other Web, PC and Mac EMail web and software options out there, but the above six are the most common. 

If your EMail setup is not one of the above, if you look around you will probably find that it will have the same or similar options to make these selections.

Additionally, almost all Web Based Email services such as GMail and Yahoo offer the option of using other email clients such as Outlook to receive and send email via their Pop3, IMAP and SMTP servers.  In almost all cases, taking the time to set up your own email client software will make it easier and faster to handle your email needs.

Copyright 2012, Bev Howard