How to Edit a PDF

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PDFs were never really meant to be edited. The format was originally based on the PostScript printer language and optimized for high-fidelity display across a variety of devices, hence the full name: Portable Document Format. It’s since been extended for filling in forms, electronic signatures, and other features, but it still isn’t ideal for editing. Most PDFs start life in some other native format (like Word or one of the Adobe Creative Cloud formats) and are converted to PDF for distribution. So typically your best option is to get the source file and work with it. Sometimes, though, that isn’t possible — either because it isn’t available to you, or because you don’t have the right application to edit the source file. In that case, the good news is you have a variety of options for editing PDFs, depending on your needs and budget.

Adobe Acrobat: High-powered PDF editor

The most obvious tool for editing PDF files is Adobe’s own Acrobat. Like most of the rest of Adobe’s offerings, its current Acrobat PDF editors are subscription-based, either on their own (from $12.99 to $24.99 per month), or part of a Creative Cloud subscription. Adobe Acrobat DC (Document Cloud) comes in Standard or Pro versions. Both versions feature a fairly powerful PDF editor.

The DC versions of Acrobat have moved from the traditional desktop interface of the older Acrobat applications to a multi-tabbed UI that is more similar to a modern web browser. As someone who has used the more traditional version for years, the new interface has taken some getting used to, but it seems to be par for the course as software vendors try to create interfaces that are nearly identical across all platforms, instead of being tailored to a specific environment.

For an extra couple bucks per month, Pro gives you the ability to work with media objects, scan documents to create PDFs, edit on your iPad, and a few other bells and whistles. Acrobat can even perform OCR on PDFs that are simple images so that you can search and edit the text.

To start editing a PDF in recent versions of Acrobat, you need to both open it and then specifically select the Edit PDF tool. Otherwise you’ll just be in a viewing and annotation mode by default.

Microsoft Word: The PDF Editor You Probably Already Own

Recent versions of Microsoft Word (Word 2013 and later) can directly Open PDF files, and convert them into editable Word documents. In my experience, Word does a good job with basic text and graphics, although form objects like checkboxes often come over as odd special characters. You’ll also lose any form-fill-in features of the original PDF. But if you need to create a document based on an existing PDF, and already have Word, this is definitely the easiest and quickest way to go. Ironically, one of the reasons Paul Manafort and Rick Gates left a paper trail leading to their Feb. 23, 2018 indictments is that Manafort either had too old a version of Word to edit PDFs himself, or didn’t know enough to try, so he sent them to Gates for converting.

PDF and Word formats are very different by their nature, so some information will get lost in translation. In particular ,Microsoft provides warnings that the following elements may not come across correctly:

  • Tables with cell spacing
  • Page colors and page borders
  • Tracked changes
  • Frames
  • Footnotes that span more than one page
  • Endnotes
  • Audio, video, and PDF active elements
  • PDF bookmarks
  • PDF tags
  • PDF comments
  • Font effects, like Glow or Shadow (in the Word file, these effects are represented by graphics)

PDF-XChange Editor

PDF-XChange Free can edit text in a PDF, but you need the Premium version to edit other objects

When it comes to editing PDFs, there is really no completely free lunch. But there are some products which come in both a free and premium version so that you can try them out for lightweight tasks, but upgrade as needed. One of the better ones is PDF-XChange Editor from tracker software. There are actually three versions. The free version allows basic creation of and editing of text in PDFs, along with re-saving them. If you need to do any real work though, you’ll need to purchase one of the premium versions. PDF-XChange Editor provides lots of other editing features for $43.50, while the Editor Plus adds the ability to create and fill out forms for $54.50. Some users may prefer its UI to that of the current version of Adobe Acrobat, as it much more closely mirrors that of Microsoft Office, with a Ribbon and menu structure. There are also lots of interesting extras, like the ability to measure the distance and perimeter of portions of a document.

Since I have more computers than I have Adobe licenses, I’ve been using PDF-XChange on one of them as my main PDF reader and editor, and really like it. The “throwback” UI is a bit jarring since most other workaday apps have gone to a cleaner, more browser-like look. But it allows for quick access to a huge array of features.

PDFescape Provides Online Editing and Conversion

PDFescape offers free and premium web and desktop offerings with good features although the interface is a little dated

If you only need to edit a couple documents, you might want to try PDFescape, which has an online version. If you find your needs increasing for a particular project, they’ll also let you subscribe to a desktop version of PDFescape Premium for $2.99 per month. Here too, the form creation capability requires another step up, to its $5.99-per-month subscription for the Ultimate version.

PDF Editing for Mobile

There are lots of self-proclaimed PDF editors for mobile, but most of them really just allow annotation

There are lots of self-proclaimed PDF editors for mobile, but most of them really just allow annotation

PDF editors for mobile devices used to be pretty slim pickings, but now there are quite a few alternatives, almost all of which have a free version. Polaris Office is one of the longest-running, but it has been joined by plenty of others. Most, like OfficeSuite from MobiSystems, don’t support full editing capability unless your phone maker has pre-licensed it for you, or you purchase a $20 to $30 license for the Pro version. Polaris has ratcheted up its Pro license to $55 per year. For free, Xodo and Foxit are two perennial favorites. Both pack in a lot of features related to annotating and sharing, although neither is truly a full editor. They’re best suited for reviewing drafts of documents.

Tell Us About Your Favorite PDF Editor

There are far too many PDF editing options for us to cover them all, and I’m sure we’ve missed some of your favorites. So if you have one you think deserves a look, please let us know.

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