Plain text is, along with Word, the most widely-used and versatile résumé format. But too many people are still unaware of its usefulness and its importance, and of the technicalities that make it useful.

Plain text is also known in the U.S. as ASCII (rhymes with passkey).

Plain-text résumés are far better than Word versions for copying into online forms—which is becoming increasingly common for job searches at all levels.

Plain-text résumés can also be copied into the body of an e-mail. (Usually when you e-mail a résumé, you will be attaching the Word version of your résumé to the e-mail. Copying plain text into the e-mail is not the same thing as attaching it.)

The versatility of plain text has its price: plain-text is plain text, with no visual formatting like boldface, italic, different type sizes, nice-looking fonts, etc. Résumés with such visual formatting are easier to read and more appealing than plain-text résumés. So résumés with visual formatting (normally produced with Word) are also standard job-hunting tools, either instead of, or in addition to, plain-text résumés. Word résumés are often requested by recruiters and HR departments; in a few industries, others in the hiring chain may prefer PDF résumés. (Word résumés are what you should always send unless you are specifically told that some other format is preferable.)

In plain-text documents, only a limited range of text characters can be used: the ASCII character set that is recognized by all computers and computer software in the U.S. Because they use only the ASCII character set, plain-text documents read the same everywhere: there is no character substitution. Many commonly-used characters are not part of the ASCII character set, and should not be used in plain-text documents (at least not in the U.S.). These include: accented letters, long dashes (en or em dashes), curly quotes, and automatic bullets. (The occasional bits of garbage you see in text on the Web or in e-mails may be caused by character substitution for unrecognized non-ASCII characters.)

If, for foreign languages, you need characters that are considered plain-text characters in the target country but not in the ASCII standard, I can send you a document with the proper encoding. (The proper encoding, in this case, is UTF-8.)

Terminology: ASCII versus plain-text, U.S. versus foreign. Increasingly often, plain-text documents are being referred to as “ASCII” documents in the résumé world. This is equally correct—in the United States. Except in rarefied technical circles, “ASCII” is a virtual synonym for “plain-text” in the U.S. (ASCII stands for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange,” and the spec dates back to the 1960s.) ASCII documents also work just fine for documents in English sent to other countries, even though “plain-text” may mean something different there. ASCII, because it was the very first character encoding specified, is the lowest common denominator, recognized by computers and software around the world, because it is a subset of the character sets specified by later encodings. Someday ASCII will be replaced everywhere, probably by one of the current Unicode encodings, such as UTF-8 or UTF-16. But that will not be soon.

NOTE: Crystal Résumés will provide the plain-text version of your résumé as a Microsoft Word document that is totally stripped of formatting. That’s because not all of my clients are familiar with handling .txt files. You can use it for your résumé just like an ASCII .txt document.

If you prefer, I’ll send a .txt file—no extra trouble, no extra charge. Either way, the text will be strictly ASCII, using only the ASCII character set. In fact, whichever I send, I first prepare the text in a .txt document, using a text processor (BBEdit) and ASCII encoding. That makes it easy to verify that all characters are ASCII. I then paste the finished text into a Word document that is void of formatting at any level. (Except that a font is specified, as it must be, even in a text processor. Otherwise there would be no letters to read. The font spec is automatically stripped when you paste into another document. The formatting that causes problems is such things as boldface, italic, line spacing, automatic bullets, and, especially, the tables that so many people use for layout in Word. Such formatting isn’t even possible in ASCII documents.)