PDFs: The necessary evil

Most writers have heard of Portable Document Files (PDFs). They crop up in phrases such as, “Submissions should be in PDF format,” or in cryptic comments from colleagues such as, “Can you output in PDF?”

What are they?

Most writers hammer their creativity into documents using some kind of word processor, and the whole point is that these documents are editable. Not just by the writer herself – should she send that file to an editor, that person can add their own bits, or remove words/sections.

This comes at a price because how the document will look on the other person’s screen isn’t guaranteed to be how it looks on yours. The other person might not have the right font installed, or they might be using a different word processor that formats paragraphs differently.

In contrast, a PDF will always look the same on every computer or device upon which it’s viewed. In other words, PDFs are as close to an actual printed page as you’re going to get on your computer screen, and what you see on screen is exactly what’ll come out of the printer – both the one attached to your computer, and one at an industrial press. The necessary fonts are included within the PDF and all the necessary image files are included too.

Because of the fixed layout, PDFs aren’t intended to be editable. This makes sense because people buggering about with the document would mess-up the layout, which would defeat the purpose of creating a PDF in the first place. There are some important exceptions to this, as I discuss later, but it’s true as a general rule.

PDFs dominate all levels of publishing. The magazine you’re reading right now was sent to the printer as a series of PDFs. If you’ve entered writing competitions then the organiser might’ve suggested you submit your work as a PDF. You might’ve downloaded eBooks as PDFs – although here the fixed layout works against PDFs because they often don’t display well on small eReader screens like Kindles, which is why distinct eBook file formats were invented.


However, do remember that if submitting work to an editor they’ll probably ask for a Word doc so they can easily edit it, and if you’re sending them an image then JPEG file format is usually best. PDFs shouldn’t be used for everything.

PDFs can be identified on your computer because their icons are usually the swirled PDF logo (see opposite), and they might have a .pdf file extension depending on your computer’s settings and whether you’ve opted to view file extensions.

Creating PDFs

For many years Microsoft avoided the PDF format and this meant, annoyingly, that Microsoft Word couldn’t create them. This came about because Adobe, which invented PDF, insinuated that Microsoft would be abusing its monopoly position by supporting PDFs. Wary of another antitrust trial, Microsoft created its own XPS format. This is too dull for me even to explain the acronym but it’s essentially feature-for-feature identical to PDF while being completely incompatible. Nobody in the world uses XPS, but it does explain why you’ve probably got used to ignoring the Microsoft XPS Document Printer entry when you come to print out a document.

Happily, in recent releases of Microsoft Word exporting a PDF has become a reality. Just click the File entry on the ribbon, and then Export and select Create XPS/PDF. Then ensure you select PDF from the Save As type dropdown list beneath the filename.

If you don’t see such an option then you can download a PDF outputter for free to do the job within any word processor. A rightfully popular choice is Cute PDF Writer – www.cutepdf.com. Once this is installed you’ll need to select to print within your word processor, just like printing to your actual printer, but select the Cute PDF option instead. This will then walk you through creating a PDF.

Incidentally, and as you might expect, Macs were built from the ground-up to be compatible with PDFs. Every app that can print can also output a PDF – just click the PDF button at the bottom left after clicking File > Print, and then click the Save As PDF option.

PDF formats

While all PDFs are viewable using viewer apps like Adobe Acrobat or Foxit PDF Reader (which I recommend – download it free from https://goo.gl/9dZgji), not all PDFs are created equal. Generally speaking, there are four types in circulation.

The first is the standard PDF file outputted by apps like Word. If there are no tuneable options in your app when creating a PDF then this is very likely what you’ll end-up with. This is intended mostly for on-screen viewing but it can also be printed, perhaps even professionally, but file size is kept reasonable. Therefore, image quality might not be first rate.

The second type is a compressed PDF, which is designed to have as small a filesize as possible. To do this the PDF is optimised, with hidden bits removed, but the bulk of the filesize savings come from lowering the quality of images in the document. These types of PDF look poor on screen and when printed, but some businesses that need to save money on storage insist on them.

The third type is what might be call the professional PDF. Again, this is the type of PDF used in the printing of this magazine and is usually although not always a specific technical format called PDF/X-1a:2001. This ensures images are outputted at 300dpi, for example, and that the colour space is correct for professional presses. If you use pro-level apps like InDesign, Distiller or Photoshop to output PDFs, this will be an option although you should always speak to the people running the printing service to learn exactly what they require.

The fourth type of PDF is one that has security applied to it. PDFs are, in fact, about much more than outputting a fixed layout even if that’s all most people care about. PDFs can include a myriad of security blocks that can stop people viewing the file without permission, or stop them copying data from it. Businesses typically use these kind of PDFs. I recently received a publishing contract in a PDF that stopped me copying text from it, for example (although your guess is as good as mine as to why that’s verboten).

Telling the difference between types of PDF requires expert knowledge. There are different version numbers for PDFs – v1.3 usually indicates PDF/X-1a:2001 has been used – and you can view this data by clicking File > Properties when a PDF is open. However, file size is a decent at-a-glance indicator. Multi-megabyte files are usually intended for printing.

Editing PDFs

PDFs are not intended to be editable but there are exceptions. The first is when the PDF is one in which people are supposed to type data. In other words, it’s a form that you’re supposed to fill-in. If you download a PDF from a government website then it might include lines on which you can click and type your own info, before either printing off the whole thing, or saving it and emailing it back to from where it came.

The second instance is when people annotate PDFs, and this is common in business use or when working with editors on proof documents. Annotating isn’t possible with basic apps like Acrobat Reader but FoxIt Reader and the Pro version of Acrobat let you add comment balloons, or lines/shapes to point things out within the page.

The third instance where people edit PDFs is if they spot a small mistake but can’t be bothered outputting a new PDF so instead choose to tweak it. This is frowned upon because it can introduce technical problems but people do it anyway, and the professional-level Adobe Acrobat Pro software lets you do so. Just open the Tools sidebar, and then click the Edit Text & Images document.

What software you need

If your head is reeling you might have one simple question: What do I need to make PDFs?

As mentioned, your word processor will probably already have the power to create them. Just click File > Export or File > Export as PDF. If you just can’t find such an option, use Cute PDF, as described above.

If you need to output PDFs for professional printing you’ll need Adobe Acrobat Pro. This is insanely expensive – £453.60! – and while you can subscribe to the software with a monthly fee of around £20, a much better option is to get a second-hand copy from eBay. This will set you back as little as £60 and will be just as good. Second-hand software might sound a little dodgy but has been ruled entirely legal.

In particular, Acrobat Pro comes with Distiller, a separate app into which you can load your Word or other document types in order to create professional-grade PDFs.

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