Editing Adobe PDF Documents

It happens all the time:  you create a document in Word, Publisher, InDesign or some other program.  You save it as a PDF so it can be read by folks without your fancy software, but you neglect to save it into your application’s native format.  It may be tomorrow. It might be next year.  But inevitably you need to make changes. This is when you realize you are completely screwed.

Do not despair! There is hope! Here are just a couple of ways you can edit PDF documents.

Method 1: Don’t Make it a PDF in the First Place

Right now you’re probably clicking you’re back button because you came here for a solution, not to be scolded for not using the right file format in the first place. This point is important enough to say it first:  Save your document in it’s native format, and save a COPY as a PDF. PDF is meant to be a digital, searchable copy of a printed document, and that’s pretty much it. If you save your document in a native format (Word, Excel, etc.) you won’t have to worry about how you’re going to make changes to it later.

Method 2: Acrobat Professional

If you’re lucky enough to have the professional version of Acrobat, the Export feature provides you with numerous options for exporting your PDF to an editable format, like Word, or Rich Text.  Be warned that if your page contains anything other than text, Acrobat does a magnificently poor job of recognizing the text. To give it a shot, go to File > Export in Acrobat Professional. Acrobat also has a Tools > Advanced Editing > Text Touchup tool that can be used for simple changes to a document’s text.  Remember, these features are only available in Acrobat Professional.

You can download a free trial of Acrobat Professional.   (Thanks to woodsman707 for the suggestion.)

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Method 3: Photoshop

If you are lucky enough to have Photoshop, it will happily open PDF documents and is an excellent tool for making edits. Photoshop is also available as a trial download from Adobe.

Method 4: GIMP

GIMP, which stands for the Gnu Image Manipulation Project, is a free open source image editing application with features similar to Photoshop. It will open and allow you to make modifications to PDF documents. And did I mention it’s free?  No trial. No expiration.  Real free software. Just be sure to hit “decline” to all of the free offers it asks about during the install.

Method 5: Convert it using Zamzar.com

Zamzar is a free service that will convert your PDF’s to a variety of editable document formats.  Initially I had mentioned zamzar.com under the heading of “Other Suggestions” below because I hadn’t received my converted documents, but shortly after publishing this article my samples arrived.  I’ve got to say, zamzar did a much better job converting my samples to Word format than Acrobat’s export feature.  It’s a little slow, but I highly recommend giving zamzar a shot. (Thanks to Pass_The_Soma for the suggestion.)

Other Suggestions

A couple of users made some suggestions in a reddit tech support post that I participated in. One user suggested using Foxit Reader’s editing capabilities.  While Foxit Reader is great for viewing PDF’s, its editing capabilities are no better than Acrobat’s own and they’re only available on a trial basis.  I tried editing a campus map for a local university.  I could add new content over the document, but I couldn’t change or remove what was already there.


The PDF file format is not meant for extensive editing.  Think of PDF as a digital representation of a printed page.  You can annotate around the text and in the margins, but you can’t erase and make changes to what’s already there.  Luckily you can get around this limitation using GIMP, Photoshop, or Acrobat Professional, but the extent to which you can make changes will still be limited.  Text will not flow with the page the way you expect.  If you have small changes to make, you can probably get away with one of these programs.  But if you need to make extensive changes, do yourself a favor and recreate the document in program that was original used to create it, save it in the program’s native format, then save a copy as a PDF. In the future you’ll always be able to make changes to the original without the need to work around the limitations of PDF.

9 replies
  1. lowell says:

    Or you could leave the world of Windows and use Mac OS X. The operating system uses PDF as its internal display model – everything onscreen comprises a single in-memory PDF context. Thus, handling PDFs is native/ first-nature to Mac OS X. No need to fiddle with external programs or web services.

    And now, the real reason for my comment: under your “Failed Suggestions” section, it’s its, not it’s.

  2. Brian Reich says:

    Thanks for pointing out the typo. It’s been corrected.

    Regarding your suggestion of switching to OS X. I was aware that PDF viewing is native to OS X but I was not aware of any ability to edit PDF’s being built into the operating system. I did some searching and I can’t find anything to confirm PDF editing capabilities of OS X, only a ton of individuals looking for Mac software to edit PDF’s. So I’m going to fire up my OS X virtual machine when I get home tonight to confirm this. Either way, I’m of the opinion that wholesale conversion from one OS to another is a particularly viable solution to such a simple problem.

  3. Lurker says:

    I use MS Office 2007 and when I use the programs you mention (Word, Publisher), I am prompted to save the document before it converts to PDF. Even when I “print” to a PDF from a MS Office application it requires me to save the document.

  4. Brian Reich says:

    I think I just saw your comment on reddit too :) Anyway Lurker, the Office 2010 suite does not require you to save to .doc or .docx format before saving to PDF (just tried it). That’s just one example.

    More to the point, sometimes you can’t control the format of the documents you need to edit. I work at a school and people are constantly receiving PDF files from other sources, and sometimes those PDF’s need to be changed. We occasionally run into PDF documents from years ago, created by some long gone employee, and have no idea where the original might be. Point is: though I stress making every attempt to avoid finding yourself in these situations, moments will still arise when you may need to edit a PDF.

  5. Lurker says:

    You should be more specific in your post then. I believe that Office 2007 and all previous versions required the document to be saved. If that’s the case, then this article is for Office 2010 forward (on the windows side). I mention it because your first two examples are “Word, Publisher”.

    As for your comment about “more to the point, sometimes you can’t control the format of the documents you need to edit.” This is true, but it makes your intro paragraph and Method 1 obsolete.

    Yes, you did see the same post on Reddit. I came back to the blog to post because it looks like you got yourself banned from Reddit for the self promoting blog post.

  6. Brian Reich says:

    If I broke the rules of /r/techsupport by posting something that wasn’t a question I understand. But this is original content and it answers a question that my users bring to me frequently.

    Tell me it’s not the appropriate forum for my link and I understand, but this blog isn’t spam. Thank you for providing your opinion on how worthless a piece of shit I am, and have a great day!

  7. Brian Reich says:

    Lurker, thanks for your recommendations. And yes, I got myself banned from /r/techsupport. If there were rules to posting there I didn’t see them. I thought Reddit was all about posting links, and since my blog is a tech support blog and I was posting about a topic I had helped solve in another /r/techsupport question, I thought it was relevant.

    I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong by posting the link. Guess I was mistaken.

    As far as it being an Office issue, I guess I disagree, since you can have PDF’s generated from just about any application and if you don’t have the original, the problem will still be the same. But I definitely understand your point, and in fact I’m not sure why Office 2010 didn’t retain that same behavior of forcing you to save to the native format first!

    Anyway, thanks for your contributions and I doubly thank you for keeping the conversation respectable. “TIL a tough lesson about /r/techsupport!!”

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