Formatting Attachments

Tips & Hints

My documents look great on my machine, but when I send them to my office, they look terrible. What's going wrong?

Posted 12 May 2005

A caller to our April 702 Sydney Weekend computer advice spot mentioned protecting CVs in email attachments. This is a common problem; people spend hours getting a document looking just right only to find it looks terrible on another’s computer. It’s worthwhile looking at why this happens and how to avoid it.

Computer settings
Every computer is, in one way or another, different to every other. This means programs that notice the differences will treat data differently on each computer. With documents this means the choice of printers, paper sizes, margins and program versions will be some of the things that change the layout of a document.

One very common mistake is to assume the other person has the same programs as you. If they don’t then they can’t read your attachments. Most businesses will be able to read Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat. Don’t send files in Microsoft PowerPoint, Works or Publisher formats without checking first the recipient has those programs.

It’s also important to remember that different versions of the same program have different features. An older version may not support advanced options. To make it worse many programs only offer some features as options, so not all users have all the features enabled.

Microsoft Word
The most common business document format is MS Word. This makes sense as most businesses can read .doc files; even those who don’t use Word can usually read documents. However Word has a number of limitations, mainly due to the way it makes every document fit the settings on the computer, rather than the settings in the document.

These limitations are made worse if the recipient doesn’t use Word nor has an older version. The more advanced feature will, at best, look funny. The fewer snazzy features you use means the less likely things will go wrong, that’s why the Keep It Simple principle is important.

Page Layouts
One very common problem is page layouts. Many systems are set by default to US paper sizes. The US Letter size is slightly shorter and wider than the A4 size we use in Australia. So your document will have page breaks in different locations.

Probably the most obvious problem is margin widths. MS Word gives a ridiculous 3cm (1¼”) margin. If you and the recipient have different margins, things may well start to look funny as line lengths and paragraphs change position.

Most users have different tab settings. If your first tab or indent is set to 1cm, an indent might look great on your machine, but the recruitment agent may have their tab set at 5cm. Which means your long hour’s fine tuning your CVs format may well have been wasted.

Probably the biggest bugbears of all are fonts. Yes, your presentation might look great in New Century Schoolbook Italic, but if the person on the other end doesn’t have that font, then their computer will make a guess at what the right font should be. Even if it makes a good guess, the risk is the spacing and look will still be totally different.

It is possible to embed fonts, which means they are included with the document. However this increases the size of the documents and might make it difficult to send. Also some fonts are copyright protected and won’t embed. There’s also the possibility the other computer won’t recognise them anyway.


Probably the best solution is to send the document as a PDF file. Abode developed this standard and Acrobat is the most common way of creating such files, however there are many alternative programs that will create PDF files. This may not solve font problems however.

Another solution is to send documents in HTML format, the same as a web page. You can create an HTML in most programs by saving as an HTML. Again, this won’t resolve font problems, and you will find the HTML conversion process may change things. Also, HTML documents do change with computers.

The most important thing is to keep your attachments simple. The more complex a document is, the more likely it will go wrong.  The things to remember with sending an attachment are:

Computing is a complex area and when we start sharing documents between computers the complexity just gets much greater. You can’t overcome the complexity, only manage it. Keep your email as simple as possible to reduce the risk of it going wrong.
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