The Quick Guide to Plain-Text Email Formatting

Melanie Balke
May 9, 2023

Sending plain-text emails may seem easy, but there’s more to it than you’d expect!

Don’t let the quaint old-school charm fool you. Like everything else in business, this simple message format requires planning and consistency. A good plain-text email should be immediately identifiable as yours, but it should also be readable.

But how do you set yourself apart from the crowd when you’re sending a text-only email? You won’t have images, and fancy formatting — including bold and italic text — is off-limits!

Don’t panic!

There’s still plenty of room to be creative. Your messages can be as vibrant and unique as any HTML email. You just need to know how to work within the system.

Why Would I Use a Plain-Text Format, Anyhow?

Japanese calligraphy. Overlaid text reads, "The Benefits: Why to Use Plain-Text Emails."

A plain-text version of a carefully crafted HTML email may seem like a waste. After all, the recipient won’t get to see all those gorgeous images you put into the message. Even worse, they won’t experience your eye-catching design.

But many users choose to receive plain-text messages. Many more get text-only emails due to technological restrictions or personal accessibility preferences.

Amplify Your Accessibility With a Plain-Text Version of Your Email Campaigns

Let’s check out that second point first.

HTML elements have plenty of visual appeal. They’re the glitz and glamor of email marketing, but they pose huge problems for some users. Rich text emails can cause discomfort in individuals with light sensitivities. Other users find the formatting of such content hard to parse when using a screenreader.

To improve their own internet experience, these users often opt to receive text-only emails over the HTML versions of the same content.

And email providers are more than happy to oblige! After all, email accessibility is a huge issue.

Including a Plain-Text Version Improves Deliverability

Moreover, including a plain-text alternative improves your email deliverability. Why?

Well, there are multiple reasons.

For many, HTML emails pose unnecessary risks. As I discussed in my last piece on plain-text emails, the embedded code of an HTML email can conceal malicious content. A seemingly innocuous link can redirect you to a scam. Many businesses and individuals counteract danger by blocking HTML email campaigns.

The same security risks have also led many email providers to implement policies that prioritize messages with proper MIME (multipurpose internet mail extensions) settings. In layman’s terms, that means these tech monoliths prefer to see emails with both an HTML and a plain-text option.

Plain-text emails also look better on non-conventional devices (i.e., smartwatches).

How Are Text-Only Emails Made?

"How It Works: How Do Text-Only Emails Work?" The text overlays an image of German text.

Like fancy-pants AMP emails, text-only emails are usually part of an email campaign’s embedded content.

Let me explain.

A properly formatted email message uses the aforementioned MIME settings. This allows a single message to have multiple formats. Think of it as a failsafe. If a user can’t receive the HTML version of an email, the client defaults to the plain-text version.

In more advanced campaigns, there are even more steps. Take — for example — an AMP email  marketing push. The first layer is the interactive AMP email. However, if a user cannot open that version of the message, the email client defaults to the next available option. Here, it’s likely a complex HTML fallback. The final failsafe is the text-only email.

Of course, if a user has set their preferences to prioritize text-only emails, they’ll receive that version first.

Automatically Generated Plain Text Emails

The easiest way to create something with only text is to let the computer do its job. Once you compose messages in your preferred editor, many providers allow you  to generate an automated plain-text option.

Plenty of email marketers choose this route, but it’s not the most effective strategy. Computers make mistakes, and you should always check the results before you commit to sending anything.

Likewise, some email clients automatically convert HTML-only emails into plain text, but these messages often end up a garbled mess. Disorganized content and improper formatting are the least of your concerns! Sometimes, the computer fails to generate anything and instead displays the raw HTML code to a client.

<p>How readable is this to you?</p> <p>And <i>more importantly,</i> how readable do you think it will be for your customers? For all their merits, HTML-based emails have some flaws. And this sort of nonsense is one of them.</p>

Writing Your Own Text-Only Original Message

The more effective option is to write your own text version of your email campaign.

Yes, this takes more time. You must budget time and energy into producing a uniquely formatted alternate for every email you send. But the results will always be better.

After all, only you know what your campaign is about. Contrary to many popular claims, computers cannot parse your intentions from only text. Even the best algorithms can misunderstand your meaning, and even the clearest HTML message can get mangled by automated parsing.

Moreover, by writing and attaching your own plain-text version, you ensure email service providers have zero chances to convert your campaign into a confusing block of code.

How to Make Formatted Messages Make Sense as Plain Text

A framed painting with overlaid text. "Templates: A Basic Guide for Formatting."

With that in mind, let’s move to the next stage of the process.

It’s time to compose messages, but how do you convert the visual wizardry of your HTML email into something a plain text editor understands? Remember: You don’t have the luxury of formatting. There’s no bold or italic text to set important text apart. Images are a no-go and don’t even think about changing the size or color of your text.

You need a plain-text template.

These documents include guides for formatting important text (i.e., headers and links). They’re also a dime a dozen online, but it never hurts to devise a unique strategy. Regardless of what you choose to do, you must maintain a consistent standard across all emails.

Otherwise, you’re confusing yourself and your customers.

Understanding the Limits of a Plain-Text Message Format

A library. "Know the Limits: Understand what plain-text emails can and can't do."

Most modern approaches to converting HTML emails to plain text revolve around existing types of markup, a way of writing text in coding programs. Some popular options can even be fed through programs that convert the plain-text version into a valid HTML email.

Now, before I start to dig into this, I need to make something very clear: These options all revolve around the standard ASCII character set.

You don’t get the luxury of emojis and fancy text in true plain-text emails. The extended ASCII set includes some accents but does not cover most fancy text gimmicks. Some examples of non-ASCII characters designers may want to use include bullets (e.g., • or ►) and double exclamation points (‼).

Knowing Your Goal

Some brands make perfect representations of their HTML emails.

Others convert the content to a rich text-only experience. For this, a brand mimics formatting notes, produces image descriptions, and transcribes embedded content.

Both options are valid, but it’s up to you to know which route to take. Moreover, your approach can vary from one campaign to the next. If your campaign revolves around an embedded video, you’ll probably want to transcribe the contents in your plain-text version. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the same for a simple sales announcement.

An Example of a Plain-Text Email Template

Many open books. "Templates: Example guidelines for writing your plain-text emails."

Remember what I said about plain-text templates? Well, here’s another dime! While some brands use actual markup to write plain-text emails, others create their own guides. These standards may not play nicely with automated conversion tools, but they offer users a more “readable” experience.

Here’s a basic example of a simple template to help your marketing team use plain text to its full potential:

=========Heading 1=========

Here is the plain-text content of the email. If I want to say something loudly, I could use *asterisks* to indicate italic text. Maybe I’ll use a **double asterisk** for bold.

For a new paragraph, I’ll insert a double space.

What about the CTA? If you’re just adding a [simple link](, you don’t need much. But you still want to make those CTAs pop!

So, maybe, I’ll wrap up the email with something like this!
>>> [Check Out My Blog]( <<<
LEGAL STUFF[Unsubscribe Here](

Notice how this text email combines the visual possibilities of text-only messages to create an easy-to-read campaign. Here, I’ve taken advantage of white space to break my content into digestible chunks. I’ve also made this text email compliant by adding a (fictitious) unsubscribe link.

Basic Tips to Get You Started

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Now that we have a template let’s break it down even more!

How can you amplify your reach when an email client refuses HTML emails?

That’s a hypothetical question; the answer is understanding and accommodating your subscriber’s preferences.

You can still have a personal feel with text emails, but you need to know the tricks. Fortunately, I’m here to help!

Avoid Excessive Line Breaks

One of the first mistakes marketers make is abusing the line break.

It’s fine and dandy to add double breaks. In fact, you should put at least one blank line between each new paragraph. This helps your content flow and makes it easier to read.

What you shouldn’t do is put line breaks where they don’t belong.
Think about it.
Is this an enjoyable experience?
Do you feel like you’re getting high-quality content, or are all these breaks getting confusing?

Though it’s probably wonderful, your email marketing probably isn’t poetry. Save the fancy spacing for later! Keep your campaigns simple and legible.

Be Consistent With Your Email Format

I’ve already said it, but it’s worth saying again…

Keep your format consistent! Whenever you use plain-text emails, remember that your writing is your identity. The way you denote important email content, like links and descriptions, sets you apart from the competition. Think of it as the equivalent of font and color choice in HTML emails.

Choose one way to do things and stick to it. More importantly, don’t switch up your formatting within the same email campaign. If you write links [like this](, write all the links like that.

Don’t Neglect Accessibility

You may be tempted to use cutesy ASCII art to give your content some visual pizzazz, but don’t lose control of your accents! Plain-text emails are a valuable accessibility tool, and overloading a message with artsy streams of characters can confuse screen readers.

That’s not to say you should never add some visual appeal to your email messages.

The example template includes a row of arrows to point at the CTA. Likewise, a small ASCII feature or short line of characters to indicate a section break is acceptable on occasion. Just don’t go overboard.

Use Clear Language

Finally, you want to be concise.

Use descriptive text for links and avoid industry jargon. Both of these points are also part of the universal standards for email marketing, and they also work with plain-text emails! Regardless of whether you’re writing HTML or plain text, you must remember that users can’t always see where a link goes.

Tell them explicitly where the link leads; don’t leave them guessing!

For example, a link that says “Buy Now!” works well in an HTML email, especially when paired with visual cues. However, it’s a vague statement in a plain-text email. Instead, consider saying something closer to “Get This Specific Product,” where “this specific product” can be substituted for whatever you’re promoting.

Invest in the Future of Your Business

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If this is a bit much for you, I understand.

Who has enough time to handle all of this and run a business?

If you’re struggling with your email marketing, now is the time to invest in your future! Give me a call for a free strategy session, and we can chat about what your brand needs to thrive. I’ll also show you have a talented group — like the folks at The Email Marketers — can make your business thrive!