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Why Doesn’t My Email Format Properly in Outlook?


One of the staff here is having an Outlook 2003 problem. It seems that when she sends email, it changes the font to show a strikethrough. Twice I have tried to correct this and here is what happened.

1. When she composed, it showed strikethroughs on her side, and that was it.

2. Now, when she composes, there are no strikethroughs, but when people reply their text has strikethroughs in it.

3. I am out of ideas and thinking of reinstalling Office 2003.

I have gone into her settings and did all the common stuff, but still can’t get it to behave.

I feel your pain. It’s a problem I commonly experience when replying to other people’s mail. All of a sudden, what I type doesn’t appear in the style I want it to, and for the life of me, I can’t whack it into shape. At least not without a lot of work.

I think I understand why it happens, and I definitely have some suggestions.

Two suggestions, actually.

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I believe that the problem stems from very convoluted formatting instructions that are created within the message. These are the raw HTML instructions that you don’t normally see, but that cause the email to appear the way it does. The instructions I mean are those that do things like indent, and place a bar next to this paragraph, or make this word bold, or embed a bulleted list within the message.

It may look simple on the outside, but inside? A convoluted mess.

The problem, particularly when replying to a message that contains this convoluted mess, is that the editor you’re using to type and edit your reply, may actually not be able to properly decipher and adjust the existing formatting in a message. For example, you might not be able to indent one paragraph without indenting all paragraphs. You should be able to, but ultimately you cannot.

Using Word to edit email is like driving a Greyhound Bus to visit your next door neighbor.

I blame the rich text editors.

Or more to the point, I blame Microsoft Word. It is notorious for generating horrible and convoluted HTML.

Recommendation #1: stop using Word as your email editor. Using Word to edit email is like driving a Greyhound Bus to visit your next door neighbor. It’s big, it’s slow, it’s overkill, and if you don’t know how to drive it just so, it can make one heck of a mess.

Email EnvelopeIn Outlook, Click on the Tools menu, the Options item, and then click on the Mail Format tab. Now, make sure that both the check boxes that reference Microsoft Word are UNchecked. You’ll still be able to send and receive HTML and Rich Text email, but Outlook will use it’s own, faster and more lightweight editor instead of firing up the 10,000 lb. gorilla that is Word.

Recommendation #2: Use plain text messages, and stop sending HTML and Rich Text mail completely. I mean, really, how often do you need all the fancy formatting in your email? If you focus on the message, the text, then all you need is plain text. This completely eliminates the potential for the formatting problems we’ve been discussing. As a bonus, your email will be smaller, faster to transmit and display, and much less likely to be erroneously flagged as spam.

In my opinion, 90% of all legitimate email currently being sent in HTML or Rich Text could just as easily, and probably more effectively, be transmitted in Plain Text instead.

In Outlook, Click on the Tools menu, the Options item, and then click on the Mail Format tab. Make sure that the dropdown next to Compose in this message format: is set to Plain Text.

HTML does have its place – mostly in what I would call “email publishing”, certain types of messages that are truly enhanced by visual representations, and for those that just can’t express themselves without bold, italics, color and who knows what else.

But if your message is in your words, there’s no reason for anything but plain text.

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22 comments on “Why Doesn’t My Email Format Properly in Outlook?”

  1. I can’t stand the Outlook/Word/Any Microsoft HTML GUI Editor. They’re all the same, whether its Outlook for email, Word for email (even worse), Word for Web Publishing, Front Page or Publisher they all make a huge mess of the code and it usually doesn’t display in a browser the same as it displays in the editor anyway. Even it it does it would only work in Internet Explorer thereby excluding anyone not using Windows, or Windows users who prefer alternative browsers.

    Interesting note: Ask Leo weekly newsletter is sent out in HTML (albeit very clean & tidy code), rather than plain text.

  2. I feel your pain too! I use Outlook Express and it just seems to ignore the settings for composing email. I have set it to use plain text and not to reply in the format sent, but it still wants to compose in HTML even though it ultimately sends text only.

    It also ignores the font set as the compose font. It also indents replies to some messages and not others.

    Any Ideas?

  3. Have you noticed how “Always Use My Fonts” is totally ignored by Outlook. Also, Auto Correct doesn’t work in html messages, and when it is working – months are not capitalized after numbers. When are you most likely to use a month?

  4. I try to set to plain or RTF, but the instructions are ignored! If I check, I do not have html format set, but every email I open or reply to is in HTML format. Further, it takes forever to open and keystrokes get accepted at about 1 per minute. sometimes if I reset the internet format, then reselect rtf or plain, the problem is solved, but next time I open outlook, its ignoring the settings. Anyone seen that slick feature?

  5. Hi, my name is Faith. I want to know why my e-mails have strikethrough line. I suspected the virus or spyware but I have made some scans. Do you know how to fix the problem. Please give me the solution because I am desperate

  6. why does email formatting get lost from outlook to outlook express?
    I use outlook in office 2003 pro. I use word as the email editor. I send formatted emails with attachments & when I send it to my home email, which is Outlook express, it loses the formatting & the attachments. However, if I send it to some else & they send to me, all the formatting & attachments are there??

    I don’t get it. Can you help??

  7. Leo,
    I would love to just type words, but unfortunately for my workplace, we are required to have bullets, bold/italic and occasionally color for our company emails. My Word editor is no problem, but unfortunately, when my colleague sets up email, she has problems with consistent font size and type. Any suggestions for those of us who must use bullets, bold/italic font, etc.? Thanks.

  8. I have a Mac. My boss has a PC with Outlook Explorer. When he receives my emails he has little boxes where there are spaces and two boxes for bullets. I type in plain text arial 8 pt. I have to figure out how to get his email to view mine properly. Please help! This has been an on going issue that I have to solve.

    To begin with there’s no such thing as “Outlook Explorer” – there’s either Outlook, or Outlook Express.

    In either case, chances are there’s a setting for “encoding” that is somehow incompatible between whatever email program you’re using and the recipients. Unofortunately you didn’t say what email program you use, so I can’t guide you as the setting, but it’s likely called “encoding”, and might have values like “ASCII”, “UTF-8”, “Quoted Printable” and similar. Try changing that setting.

    – Leo
  9. This is not much of a comment more like a questions I wasn;t sure how to post it. I am using Outlook 2003 and on the New mail the spacing is set for 1 space but it tyoes and indents like its 1.5 spacing. I can not figure out for the life me how to fix this issue. Could some please help me on this issue.

  10. I’m having trouble with the way Outlook formats my emails. When I type the message body all of the text below the first line is indented. When a new paragraph is started, the same happens, the first line is normal and the rest is indented. I can correct the indentations afterwards by highlighting the text and sliding the tab markers back to the normal position but this is getting tedious. Also, when someone replies to my emails, their text becomes indented in the same manner. Any suggestions would be most welcome. Thanks!

  11. My Memo email format shows the desired footer in PRINT PREVIEW. A undesired header an another footer appear when the email is printed. How can I correct this?

  12. One would think that in this day and age that you could type out a message in Outlook or Gmail and have it appear properly when it’s received on the other end.

    Why should a person have to do a million other actions to get the letter to appear properly on the page, so it doesn’t look slopped up, broken or just plain weird when the receiver gets the letter?

    Is there anyone that works for Microsoft, or Gmail or Outlook who has the ability to write a program that can make a letter appear half way as decent as the good old tried and true manual typewriter?

    I doubt it. I’m sure they could write a few dozen procedures one could use, to try and fix up the sloppy program they wrote but that’s not what I’m looking for.

    I want to type a letter out in gmail and have it look like the letter I typed out when the receiver gets the letter. I’m surprised that in the so called information age, this can’t yet be done.

    • The problem is that each email composing program or web interface does things differently.

      You can switch to plain text in Gmail. Unfortunately, you have to do it for each individual email you send. Click on the small triangle in the lower right of the email you are composing and click on plain text.

  13. I have a problem and need to talk to a real person. I already wrote this. I need to send an attached file by e-mail. I go thru the steps but the e-mail page doesn’t come up where the attachment is put in and the address. Why did you have to change this very simple task?

    • *I* didn’t change anything. This is not Microsoft, and I have no control over what they do and do not change. That being said, I’d need a lot more information about exactly you’re attempting to do, starting with the version of the specific software you’re having problems with, the exact steps you go through to have the problem, and what version of Windows you’re running.

  14. Or more to the point, I blame Microsoft Word. It is notorious for generating horrible and convoluted HTML.

    I remember when MS Word 6 came out with HTML creating capabilities. I created a web page in Word and the HTML it generated was so complex and convoluted. MS never seemed to get HTML generation down right. Even Front Page created some of the most undeciferable HTML.

  15. Periodically when email is sent to a group of recipients (a short couple of paragraphs) some recipients receive a message with one word on each line, forming a column to read sentences absurdly downward.
    (my company’s Outlook site)
    After I receive their response, displaying my original message as such, it will default back in the display shortly afterward, to my original sent form. (in the the response copy they sent back.)

    Anyone with a clue?

    • Outlook has changed since this article was written

      Click on the “Files” tab
      Click “Options”
      Click “Mail”
      On the second line under “Compose messages”, if it says “HTML”, click on “HTML” and change to “Plain text”
      Click “OK”


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