The (HL Fiction) Formatting FAQ

version 1.18 (26 September 2006)

compiled by Kathryn A

This FAQ was created to help people compose and post their stories to the Highlander Fiction mailing list in a manner which enables the maximum number of people to be able to read them, using any kind of mailing software, on any kind of system. Though this was created specifically for the Highlander Fiction mailing list, the principles inside apply to any mailing list in which heterogeneous mailing software is used.

The Questions

Section 1 - The Symptoms

Q1.1) Why do I get those stupid control characters in my posts?

Why do I get those stupid control characters (=20 and stuff like that) in my posts?

A1.1) The problem arises when people use word-processors and certain text editors to compose their story. These use "soft" returns within paragraphs, and "hard" returns to mark the end of a paragraph. But for something which doesn't know about "soft" returns (such as mail transport software, which only deals with plain text, and plain text only, and plain text just knows about hard returns) then one paragraph in your story comes out as one long line with a hard return at the end of it -- in other words, with plain text, a hard return indicates the end of a line, and not the end of a paragraph.

Now enters your mail-sending software, which tries to encode your mail so that it can be sent nicely. It finds these one-line paragraphs (it may even recognise the soft returns, I'm not sure) and says, hey, I gotta do something about this, and it sticks in these =20 characters in place of the soft returns, in the expectation that exactly the same mailing software will read the mail at the other end, and silently get rid of those =20 characters and replace them with soft returns again. But of course, that doesn't happen with most other mailers, and you get all those =20 signs instead. (and the various other =? signs, used to replace things like "smart quotes" and so on, that don't have corresponding characters in plain text).

The encoding scheme which most of these mailers use is known as MIME encoding. MIME encoding is also used to encode "attachments".

Q1.2) My post turned up as a whole lot of gobbledygook! What happened?

A1.2) You probably sent your file as an attachment. And your file was probably a word-processor document rather than a plain text file, so the encoder had to encode not just the occasional soft return or quote character, but the entire document, with special codes in order that it be able to transmit the document over the mail system (which only transmits plain text).

Thus, when people read the mail, they get the code, and not the document. MIME encoding is usually what is used, though "uuencode" is an older method which is still around.

See Q2.1 for the solution.

Q1.3) My post is full of ? characters instead of quotes and apostrophes! Why?

A1.3) You probably cut and pasted your post from a word-processor such as MS-Word, which had "smart quotes" turned on. Your mailer software actually did manage to send the content intact, but when it got translated at the other end, the computer didn't know what the "smart quote" characters were meant to be, because they are non-standard characters (not plain text) so it put a question mark there saying "Hey, I don't know what this character is!"

Similarly, one may get weird characters rather than question marks -- in that case, the computer at the other end is interpreting those characters with a different (non-plain-text) character-set than the one it was sent with.

This boils down to: "smart" quotes are evil and should be avoided.

See Q2.1 for the solution.

Section 2 - The Solutions

Q2.1) How can I avoid those stupid control characters and weird characters?

A2.1a) Compose your stories in plain text, with a plain-text editor such as vi, vim, emacs, notepad or editpad. (Or even edit, ed, or ex!) Or compose your stories with the editor used by a plain-text email program (such as elm, pine, mutt...) Or in an email program which is capable of emitting plain text (such as Eudora).

A2.1b) If you must use a word-processor for your composing:

  • Don't forget: do not use smart quotes.
  • Compose your story with a font and window-size such that there are no more than 80 characters per line
    • and then cut+paste the story into the mailer window
    • or save the file as plain text with line breaks. MSWord and Wordstar are known to have this filter, but not every word-processor may have such an option.
    • or save the file as plain text ... except that most word-processors save that as one-paragraph-per-line which means you have the same problem still.
  • Another possible solution is to compose your story always making sure that you have a blank line between paragraphs, save the story as text, and then run a program like "fmt" or "par" over it, which will break up those one-line-per-paragraph lines into multi-line paragraphs, as long as you have a blank line in between them, otherwise it will treat your whole story as one long paragraph!

A2.1c) Don't forget your mailer! That can contribute to the problem also. Some mailers are plain text all the way, but others like to put in fancy formatting.

  • Make sure you have smart-quotes/quoted-printable turned off.
  • Turn off MIME compatibility
  • Do not send mail as HTML either!

Q2.2) How do I solve the ellipsis problem?

Is there some trick I can use so that whenever I use an ellipsis, (...) it will not turn into the number 85?

A2.2a) Some e-mail/text programs will treat two words connected by an ellipsis as a single word when wrapping text. Putting a space after the ellipsis keeps this from happening.

A2.2b) MS Word's AutoCorrect feature will replace the three separate periods in an ellipsis with a single special character, just like when it replaces feet and inch marks with SmartQuotes. Turning off your word processor's AutoCorrect feature, or editing it to avoid using special characters should solve the problem.

Q2.3) How can I set my WP so that it isn't more than 80 characters per line?

How can I set my margins and fonts in my word-processor so that it isn't more than 80 characters per line?

A2.3) One setting that works is: right margin at 5", with Courier font at 12 points.

Q2.4) How can I set my mail program to send only plain text?

I can't find the "quoted-printable" option!

A2.4) A useful URL with instructions for many mailers is:

Section 3 - Plain Text Editors and Other Helpful Software

Q3.1) Where can I get "fmt" and "par"?

A3.1) "fmt" is a unix command, but you can get versions for MS-Windows -- look on the GNU website It is the case that fmt was formerly part of the GNU text-utils package, but it is now part of the core-utils package. Documentation is here:

Precompiled binaries of fmt for 32-bit MS-Windows are here:

"par" is another formatting program, and one can get version 1.52 here:

Q3.2) Where can I get these plain-text editors?

A3.2a) Vi is the standard editor on Unix. You can get versions of "vi" for MS-Windows, but I would suggest you ignore those and go straight for Vim (which stands for Vi IMproved) which you can get for Unix, MS-Windows, NT, Macs, and a staggering number of other systems. GVim is Graphical VIm, which uses its own window instead of a terminal/console window, and has a few extra features like menus, scroll bars, and other mousy-graphics things.

Source and binaries are available on the VIM website on VIM is free (though you are encouraged to make a donation to charity)

Some may find that they don't like the user-interface for VIM. Fear not, there is a project, "Cream for Vim" at which is a special configuration for VIM to enhance it to make it work more like a "normal" GUI text editor. Try it out.

A3.2b) GNU Emacs is available for Unix and MS-Windows, and is probably available somewhere on the GNU website It also is free.

There is also XEmacs (, a graphical version, but I don't know if it is available for MS-Windows. If you run Mac or Linux you should be fine.

A3.2c) Notepad is the standard text editor in MS-Windows. It has a limited file size that it can edit, though some people would say that if you've passed the limit, then the file is too big to post anyway.

A3.2d) Editpad (I think that is what it is called) is a replacement for Notepad for MS-Windows. It has more features and less limitations than Notepad. It is postcardware.

A3.2e) Also recommended by our readers is PFE (Programmer's File Editor), available freely from (It works on all kinds of MS-Windows systems.)

A3.2f) A reader-recommendation for Mac users: BBEdit Lite. It is designed specifically for HTML and other electronic editing, so it has easy features for converting to ASCII, setting line lengths, and adding hard returns to the end of lines. There are also tools available to "brainwash" Smart Quotes and to add basic HTML tags. The Lite version and the tools are freeware, available from Bare Bones Software. (MacOS only)

A3.2g) contains a list of lots of free MS-Windows text editors, including most of the ones already mentioned above.

Q3.3) But what will happen to my paragraphs with a plain-text editor?

I'm used to just typing, I can't remember to hit "return" at the end of every line.

A3.3) Most of the above editors have options which you can set so that you can just keep on typing and it will put you on the next line without you having to remember to hit "return".

Some of them also have commands which you can use to reformat a paragraph and centre text and other things.

Q3.3) Any other reasons I should use a plain text editor?

A3.3) Plain text means you can edit your story no matter what system you are on, whether it be Unix/Linux, MS-Windows, Macs -- even Acorns! This means you can borrow someone else's computer when you're travelling, or when yours goes "fizzt!"; just remember to back up your stories.

Another advantage is that the file sizes are much smaller than word-processor files.

Vim/GVim also has multiple undo-redo capabilities.

Q3.4) What are some disadvantages of composing with plain text?


  • No automatic spellchecking.

Actually, Vim version 7.0 has built-in spellchecking. I don't know about Emacs.

Also, you can get spellcheck programs that work on plain text files -- the GNU unix shell commands include the ispell or aspell spell-check program.

  • If you want to put your stuff on a web-page, MSWord will convert it directly to HTML for you

there are various programs which will convert plain text into HTML.

There's HTML::TextToHTML by Kathryn A at which is based on txt2html by Seth Golub at which converts plain text into HTML with paragraphs, headers, multi-level lists, preformatted text, urls of many shapes and varieties, and limited italic, interpreting many conventions, and open to some customization. The XHTML version of this FAQ is produced with it.

There are other text-to-html converters. Do a search at and you'll find a few.

Also, if you can save your file in RTF format, the rtf-2-html program "r2h" does a very good job of converting to HTML. Better, IMHO, than the HTML which MSWord97 produces from the same source.
It is shareware, MS-Windows.

This FAQ can only improve with your feedback. Please send your useful comments to

The HTML version of this FAQ lives at . It is okay to link directly to this file, just let me know that you have.

Thanks to everyone who helped, especially Kath, Susan, Bridget, Laura, Daniel, Debbie, siona, Dorothy and Eric.