Work better with PDFs

Kirk McElhearn
3 July, 2012
View more articles fromthe author


PDFs are great, portable, cross- platform documents that you can read on your Mac, on your iPad or iPhone or on a PC. But this ubiquitous file format is also useful when you need to share works in progress with your colleagues.

You don’t need to buy an expensive program to add comments or notes to a PDF. Instead, you can use a tool you already have – Apple’s Preview. These tips work in the Lion version of Preview; earlier versions may differ slightly.

Here’s a sampling of annotation tools you can use in Apple’s Preview.



Open a PDF in Preview and then click on the toolbar button that looks like a pencil. This displays the annotation toolbar, which lets you access the annotation features. Activate any of these by clicking its button or by accessing it in the Tools > Annotate menu.

Highlighting text is an easy way to mark sections that you want to remember or to mark parts of a text that you want to point out to others.

To highlight text, press c-Control-H to activate the Highlight button or click the second button in the Annotations toolbar (the pen). Then select the text you want to highlight. Click and drag the cursor to highlight long sections of text. Double-click to highlight a word. Triple- click to highlight a line.

After you’ve highlighted something in a PDF, you may want to add a note to explain why or to propose a change. To do this, press c-Control-N or click the Note button in the Annotations toolbar. The content of your PDF slides to the right and a grey sidebar appears to the left; this is where the text of your notes goes.

Your cursor is now a crosshairs; click it where you want to place your note. A yellow section appears in the sidebar, with your name and the date. (You can choose not to display your name; go to Preview > Preferences > PDF and uncheck Add Name To Annotations.) Start typing to replace the selected text or move your cursor to the end of the yellow box to retain it.


Preview’s many other annotation features let you strike through text or add rectangles, ovals, speech bubbles and more to highlight different sections. Most of these annotations transfer correctly to the free Adobe Reader X and the $709 Adobe Acrobat X Pro. You’ll find that these options make Preview a great tool for collaborating with others.


The PDF file format is a great tool for sharing documents while retaining their formatting and ensuring that the documents don’t get changed (contracts, for instance). But sometimes you need to use the text in a PDF.

While you can copy and paste text from a PDF, chances are it will end up seriously mangled. You’ll see odd line breaks or no breaks at all and styles will be lost. There are ways, however, to convert a PDF to formatted text.


The first method is the cheapest and uses a tool that is part of Mac OS X: Automator. Use it to create a workflow that extracts text from PDFs and saves it as a text or RTF document.

Open Automator, which is in your Applications folder. On the first screen that appears, choose the Workflow document type. Click on Files & Folders in the leftmost column and then drag Ask For Finder Items from the second column to the larger section at the right of the Automator window. Next, click on PDFs in the leftmost column and drag Extract PDF Text below the first item.

The second Automator action allows you to choose whether you want to save the text extracted from your PDFs as plain text or in Rich Text Format.

In most cases, you want to choose the second option, as this retains formatting such as bold and italic text.

Microsoft Word, Apple’s TextEdit and Pages and most other text editors can handle RTF.

Press c-S and give your workflow a name, such as ‘PDF to RTF’, and then choose Application from the File Format pop-up menu. Finally, click on Save.

Launch your new application, select a PDF file in the screen that appears and let Automator do its work. Open the file that appears in Word to see the text of your PDF file, complete with text formatting but no layout elements (no columns and so on). The result can look a bit messy, but you can now edit the text and use it in other documents.


If you need more than just the text and want to make Word documents that look like your PDFs, a dedicated conversion program can help. One of the most effective is Solid Documents’ US$79.95 Solid PDF to Word. It can convert a PDF into a Word document that retains most formatting.

When we converted a PDF using Solid PDF to Word, the resulting Word file (right) ended up looking a lot like the original PDF (left).


We used the program to convert several complex PDFs, and while Solid PDF to Word took some time to perform the task, the resulting Word files did resemble the originals.

These conversions aren’t always perfect – they use similar fonts, retain graphics and keep the approximate layout, but there can be glitches. Overall, however, the results are certainly good enough to let you use the content with considerably less hassle.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us