EdTech: Annotating PDFs

Invented in the early 1990s by the Adobe corporation as a way to share fixed-layout documents, the now-ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF) is today an international open standard and one of the easiest ways to share files electronically. PDFs also offer many other features, such as form fields that can be filled out, password protection for document editing and digital signatures for official documents, and are also often used to send prepress publishing files from a layout program (such as InDesign) to a commercial printer.

On the editorial side, PDFs can be used to send manuscripts for review or editing, either to be printed out on the receiving end (eg for hardcopy markup), saving postage costs one way, or to be marked up or annotated electronically and then sent back over email or through a file-sharing server, such as FTP (File Transfer Protocol) or Dropbox (a popular and free cloud-based file-sharing service). If you've only ever done hardcopy markup, it may take a bit of getting used to - and it may seem slower at first to use your mouse and keyboard instead of a pen - but electronic annotation allows for faster transmission, multiple reviewers and better version control.

Here are some of the annotation functions you may find most helpful in an editorial context, whether for document review or copy editing:

Sticky Notes: A digital skeuomorph* of those little yellow sticky notes from your office supply cupboard. These notes also let you leave a small yellow (or red, blue, green - any colour you like!) note icon with a pop-up window for comments, which can be expanded or collapsed as desired (to declutter the page). When created it shows the datestamp and initials of the author (set your initials in the program's settings), which helps distinguish comments from multiple reviewers. Different colours or even icon styles (checkmark, circle, star, etc) can be set in the Properties (under Options) to denote different categories of comments.

Highlight Text: An I-beam cursor allows you to swipe and highlight text on the PDF page, much like a highlighter pen on paper. By bringing up the Properties option (right-click, or Option-click on a Mac, on the highlight itself), you can choose different colours and opacities (eg if you choose a deep red colour, bring the opacity down to let the text be seen through it more clearly). There are also tools to do the same but with Underline Text (which can be set to straight or 'squiggly' in the Properties) and Cross-Out Text. Double-clicking on the line will bring up a pop-up window for comments.

Text Edit: This tool gives you three options that allow for basic copy editing markup. 1) Click the cursor in between two letters and start typing; an 'insert' caret icon will appear, as well as a pop-up note for the text you'd like to be inserted there. 2) Select text and start typing; a cross-out line will appear across the text and a pop-up note will allow you to type in the text you'd like to replace it with. 3) Select text and hit the Delete key for a cross-out line to appear to denote text to be deleted entirely. As with the other tools, the Properties section will let you change the colour and opacity of the lines, pop-up notes and icons.

Pencil: By holding down your mouse button and then moving the cursor, you can draw any shape you like with the pencil tool (you may need to do it in several lines - just release the mouse button and continue to the next line). You can also change the thickness of the line, its colour and its opacity. The Pencil Eraser tool lets you erase just part of a line (if you want to delete the entire line, just select it with the arrow icon and hit delete).

Pro Tip: If you have a work form or invoice from an employer in PDF form that needs your signature, instead of printing it out and posting it back, try signing your signature with the Pencil tool and sending the PDF back by email (where your employer can print it out on their end or simply file it on their computer). It may take a bit of practice to get your signature looking smooth (especially if you have a lot of circular loops), but the time and effort you can save by doing it digitally will be worth it.

Other Shapes: Other pre-drawn shapes are available to set off a section of the document, such as a cloud, a line, an arrow, a rectangle or an oval. After selecting the tool you want, simply click and drag to resize the shape; you can later select it with the arrow tool and move it to a different place using the mouse. Again, line colour and opacity can be changed in Properties, as well as fill colour and line style (dotted, dashed, etc).

There are plenty of other annotation tools available for use besides these - make a copy of an old PDF document or create a new one and play around with all of the different options you see. You just may find that moving your editorial functions to the digital space is easier than you'd thought.

Note: The above functions can be found in Adobe's application Acrobat Professional (under the Tools?Comment & Markup menu), along with many more not listed here. Other PDF programs, such as Apple's Preview application, may have a limited number of these, but most should still include the basic functions. For more information, please consult the help manual or website for your specific PDF annotation program.

 Ali Lemer


*skeuomorph: a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that were necessary in the original. Basalla, George (1988). The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 107.