Pdf to word and back again (w/o losing formatting)
April 9, 2019 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I have a big document that needs a bunch of small changes. Right now, it's a pdf that was created from an InDesign document. Instead of sitting down with a typesetter and paying for hours of tiny corrections, can I convert it to a word document, make the changes myself, and reconvert it back to a pdf w/o losing all of the very specific formatting? Is there any way that can happen? If it can happen, is it only possible with the original InDesign document?
posted by CollectiveMind to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've never had luck trying to convert PDF's postscript-centric text model into Word's broken and inconsistent formatting system. My suggestion would be to try one of Adobe's PDF tools.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:47 AM on April 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

If it's changes to the text that won't affect the flow from page to page (i.e. approximately net neutral word count) like misspellings, adding and removing commas, you can probably do this with directly editing the PDF. I know Acrobat can do it, and there are likely free alternatives.

Word will mess things up a lot.

is it only possible with the original InDesign document?

It's certainly a lot easier; this would mean that changing flow wouldn't matter since text boxes are usually linked so words can move between them.
posted by supercres at 6:50 AM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Have a crack at it with PDFescape before reaching for anything heavier.
posted by flabdablet at 6:52 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

...can I convert it to a word document, make the changes myself, and reconvert it back to a pdf w/o losing all of the very specific formatting?


Do you not have access to the InDesign files, or do you not have the InDesign software?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:16 AM on April 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

What supercres said. You'll be asking for trouble if you convert it to Word.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:18 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Unless you're dealing with the simplest PDF ever (and maybe even then) doing what you suggest is likely to be insanely painful in a huge variety of ridiculous ways you'd never even be able to imagine.
posted by trig at 7:40 AM on April 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I deal with word and pdf documents every day. You would think that after all these years there would be some easy way to reliably go back and forth, but nope. You will end up with a mess. Editing directly in pdf is asking for trouble as well.

I really hate working with pdfs.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:40 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

PDF is fundamentally not an editing format, Word is fundamentally not a publishing format. They both suck in their own ways, and they especially suck at interoperating. If you can't do the small/light edits with a PDF tool, you're probably best to scrape the text and start over formatting it with a tool that is designed to both edit and layout well. I would choose LaTeX but literally anything else will be better for this task than Word or InDesign. I don't know why we can't have nice things, but that's the way it is.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:43 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is what InCopy is for. But yes, you need the original InDesign doc. If I were you I'd just download a trial copy of InDesign and make the edits there. It's not as scary as you think. Stick to the story editor if you're afraid of messing up the design. (Click inside a text box and select from the Edit menu, Edit in Story Editor.)
posted by libraryhead at 8:03 AM on April 9, 2019

The chances to make messes, either when converting to word or editing the PDF directly, are related to the scale of your edits and the complexity of the document formatting.

If you're only fixing typos, working within the PDF could be OK. Adding or removing words will change the text spacing, which could make things messy, depending on how the PDF has the text formatted (separate lines versus block of wrapping text, for example).

If it's a pretty straight-forward document, one column with headers and footers, you can turn it into a Word document. It sounds like it might not be this easy, but if you go this route, you should review and confirm the formatting (not just font types and sizes, but also line spacing and margins), because there's a decent chance for "eccentric" formatting throughout the document, which makes editing a pain in the arse. PDF to Word makes "best guesses" for formatting, which can look good in a fixed document, but once you start tweaking it, things can get weird, and fast.

Also, if the formatting is that specific, Word might not even do a good job at keeping the formatting, even if the PDF to Word conversion looks good in the fixed format. As I'm sure you're aware, InDesign has a lot more fine detail control than Word, so Word could snap lines to weird places, ruining your lovely document.

I think it's a question of how much time you have, and how much your time is worth. Directly editing the InDesign is ideal, so if you can get away with spending some time with a 7 day trial, or go somewhere that has a computer with InDesign (perhaps a library, or an office supply/ support/ printing store) you can make the tweaks yourself. And an InDesign-only "lease" is $20.99 per month, so it's not a huge expense to continue working on your own for a couple more weeks, if need be.

Alternatively, you can mark up the document, either digitally or on a physical print-out, and a typesetter should be able to get through a list of minor edits pretty easily, assuming it doesn't change the layout.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:52 AM on April 9, 2019

If the edits are all relatively simple, yes, you can edit directly in the PDF. That's better than going to word and back again. (Unless you intend to re-design the whole publication in Word, so you have access to the file for the future.)

Keep in mind that if you do ever need to go back to the original InDesign file that none of your changes will be in there, and you may end up having to pay the designer to make the changes again anyway.

If you can mark up the pdf and get it back to the person who made it in InDesign, it probably won't take more than an hour of their time (depending on the length of the document).

Think of the PDF as a snapshot of the original document. That original document was designed in InDesign because it's a great tool for making a good-looking document. You can do may of the same things in Word if you want, but it will take you a lot of time and effort. If that's how you want to spend your time, then yes, export the file to Word. Make your edits, then clean it up so it looks good, then re-make your pdf.
posted by hydra77 at 9:27 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

As everyone else has said, this will be incredibly frustrating if you attempt to make changes in anything other than the original InDesign document, especially if it's as large as you say. If you need to use InDesign for more than the 7 day trial it's actually US$31.49 for a one month subscription (the US$20.99/month quoted above is only if you sign up for a year-long contract).
posted by theory at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, all. If I'm successful, I'll let you know on Metafilter Projects.
posted by CollectiveMind at 4:33 PM on April 9, 2019

Small changes: Acrobat Pro can make these.
Note: The difference between "small changes" and "substantial changes" are not obvious to people who don't do a lot of PDF editing.

Substantial changes: You want the ID file and ID software. InDesign has a lot of formatting features that Word just cannot copy - even if you convert it to Word and re-do whatever formatting got botched by the conversion (because some would), you likely can't recreate the same document in Word. ID has line spacing, character spacing, and object placement options that Word doesn't allow.

There are workarounds if you can't get the original file and/or can't get InDesign, but they're all complicated and would need to be based on the details of the file and/or your software skills.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:22 PM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

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