I want to edit (not annotate) PDFs on my Mac for less than $180/year
January 14, 2018 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I would like to be able to edit PDF files on my Macintosh. Edit. Like, change the text they have in them. Apple's free Preview.app does a decent job of letting me annotate PDF's (though it's not as good as it used to be). But I don't want to annotate PDFs. I want to actually change the text they contain. Adobe wants $180/year for Acrobat Pro, which just feels insane. Is there a cheaper reliable solution?

I find myself wanting to edit a PDF file a few times a year. My current need is a little more pressing than usual, so I'm trying to actually find a solution.

I have a 90 page PDF document sprinkled with social security numbers. I need to redact the social security numbers and then send the document to someone. With Preview I can put black blocks over the social security numbers but they are still there under the black blocks, so it's possible to copy and paste them out of the document. That's not an acceptable solution.

My second attempt to do this with Preview involved saving the PDF file as Postscript, then opening the Postscript version in a text editor, then replace all the SSNs with xxx's, then convert the Postcript back to PDF. That works, but unfortunately the result is too large for the portal I need to upload the PDF to. (For some reason the round trip from PDF to Postscript and back to PDF balloons the size from 3.5MB to 18MB.)

So, back to my original question: is there some app out there that costs less than $180/year, that runs on a Mac, and that will let me edit the contents of a PDF file. (Not annotate, not fill out forms, but actually edit the text.)

posted by Winnie the Proust to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're comfortable with the roundtrip, and the resulting file size is the only issue, then this may be the solution for you:


I haven't tried it since macOS was known as Mac OS X, so YMMV.
posted by oheso at 7:28 PM on January 14, 2018

What about a PDF -> Word app? Change the PDFs to editable Word docs, then save them again as PDFs.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:28 PM on January 14, 2018

PDFPen does this. One-time $75.
posted by holgate at 7:32 PM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

I believe PDF Pen would do the job. Haven’t used it in a long while, but the description seems to match your requirements.
posted by veggieboy at 7:33 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Formulate Pro is free/open source. It's been a long time since I've used it, but I think it'll do what you need.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:45 PM on January 14, 2018

Yep, PDFPen should be able to do this. $75 is a bit steep, but when you need it, you really need it, you know?
posted by praemunire at 8:42 PM on January 14, 2018

You can redact with black box then save the pages in tiff or jpeg, then combine back to PDF and the boxes will be part of the image and not moveable. It’s a free way to go if you have the standard Acrobat product.
posted by HoteDoge at 10:04 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Inkscape for Mac (GPL) will do this but treats the resulting file more like Illustrator.
posted by benzenedream at 12:15 AM on January 15, 2018

LibreOffice lets you load pdfs, edit them and save them back as pdfs, though it can be temperamental with formatting.
posted by haemanu at 4:48 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've had some success with Master PDF Editor 4. The website looks dodgy af, I know. It's one of the few programs I've seen that can (sometimes) edit LiveCycle PDF forms, and even Acrobat Pro can't do that. There's a free demo that at least allows you to poke around some files.

Do be a tad careful with redaction. Acrobat does it by making a bitmap of the redacted page so the original text is fully expunged, but the rest of the text of the page may not be in a readable/accessible format. PDFs can hide searchable text in all sorts of arcane places, and the penalty for accidentally disclosing multiple SSNs is gonna be a lot more than $180.
posted by scruss at 5:18 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Primo PDF may be another solution.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:52 AM on January 15, 2018

Free, I use Okular. It was originally developed for KDE (a *nix desktop GUI) but apparently it's now available for Windows too, and works on Mac OS X. (Mac OS X is based on BSD which is a Unix derivative.)

I use Okular to annotate PDFs regularly.
posted by fraula at 7:07 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

PDFs can hide searchable text in all sorts of arcane places

The pdf spec is insane, implementations more, if there is a legal element to your redaction the ONLY safe way to ensure actual redaction is to create an image and modify that.

I suppose an alternative would be to extract all the data and recreate the form, that could be done in LibreOffice, but again if there are legal issues, retyping would be the only really safe option.
posted by sammyo at 7:18 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding that even a real PDF editor might not fully redact the SSNs; PDF is a weird format and there's lots of ways for text to hide in it, so it may be a better idea to copy the text you want to preserve over to some other program and then output a new PDF.
posted by Aleyn at 8:27 AM on January 15, 2018

I see PDF Expert in the Mac App Store for $60, which has good reviews. The website seems to have a free (demo?) version too.
posted by w0mbat at 11:44 AM on January 15, 2018

A clunky but free and robust solution is to use pdf2svg. It's originally a linux tool, though there are instructions for installing it on a mac on the site. The output svg file retains characters and vectors, rather than treating the whole thing as an image. Then you can use inkscape (or the graphical editing tool of your choice) to add and remove objects from the file, before exporting to pdf again.
posted by eotvos at 12:14 PM on January 15, 2018

Thank you for all the suggestions.

A few clarifications: converting the PDF to images isn't an option, because the end result would be much too large. It is 90 pages and needs to be 10MB or less. (Yes, I know it's 2018 but apparently some other people don't.)

The SSNs in the document are mine and my families, so this isn't a question of legal liability for someone else's information. I'm willing to take the risk that removing the text in all the places I can find it will be sufficient.

Of the options listed above, it looks like PDF Pen, Master PDF Editor 4, and PDF Expert by Readdle would all do it. I downloaded the trial version of PDF Expert and it looks like a great app.

In the end, though, I was able to open the PDF document in a text editor and replace all the SSNs with xxx-xx-xxxx. I don't get the cool redacted black box, but I don't really need that and plus I get to feel like a power nerd editing the PDF source.

Thanks much. I may still purchase PDF Expert at some point. It looks like a very good app.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2018

« Older Cookbook Suggestions Needed   |   Help Me Hear, But Not See - streaming music... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.