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How to Edit PDF Documents in Microsoft Word

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This post is part of a series called Going Paperless.
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There are Word documents that you can edit, and then there are PDFs. PDFs are great because, like a printed piece of paper, they look the exact same, everywhere, no matter what app you view them with or what fonts you have installed. When you want to share a file and make sure it always looks the exact same, PDF is the way to go.

And yet, PDFs are some of the most difficult files to edit. Everyone has an app to preview PDFs, as viewers are built into most modern operating systems, but editing them typically requires Adobe Acrobat. It’s a great tool if you own it, but a price tag of $20/month or $300+ upfront makes it out of reach for many.

That’s ok though, because your copy of Word 2013 can edit PDFs! If you have an older version of Word, there are some free and premium tools available to get your PDFs into a format that you can work with. Let's dive in and see how this works.

Editing PDFs in Word 2013

One of the new features included in Word 2013—the copy of Word you get with Office 365 on a PC—is built-in support for importing PDFs and editing them in Word. You won’t be editing the original PDF though. Instead, Word converts the PDF to Word's native format, turning the section headers to Word styles and more so you can easily edit and reuse the document.

To get your PDF into Word, just open it inside of Word or right-click on a PDF file in Explorer and select to open it in Word. You’ll see a warning that the converted document will not be exactly the same as the original. Click OK, and after a brief pause your PDF will open in Word.

Word 2013 PDF Import
An imported PDF in Word, with the chapter heading wildly oversized

Word does a great job importing PDF documents in some ways, but messes them up terribly in other ways. If the PDF you converted used fonts that are standard on PCs, your converted document may actually be quite similar to the original PDF; otherwise, you'll likely have oversized headers, oddly spaced paragraphs, and more.

That can be relatively easily fixed, though, since Word imports the PDF text sections using Word Styles. Select a messed-up section to see what style it's using, then edit the style in Word and all similar sections will automatically update. Similarly, Word will import headers and footers correctly—even recognizing when documents use different footers for opposite pages—so you can edit them once and the changes will show up across the entire document.

Document sections in an imported PDF
Edit the footers and headers of the document the same as you would any other Word file

While Word does a good job with PDFs filled with text and simple formatting, it tends to mess things up when you import PDF forms. It won't include any data you've saved in the form text fields, and will mess up spacing, lines, text boxes, and more in the import. For most purposes, you'd be better off recreating the form than importing it via Word.

A PDF form imported into Word
Forms fare the worst in a Word import.

Converting PDF to Word Without Word 2013

Word for Mac, iPad, and Word Online, along with older versions of Word on PCs, cannot open and edit PDFs. If you’d like to edit PDFs in any of them, you’ll first need to convert them to Word format, and then open the converted file in Word.

If you have a copy of Adobe Acrobat (included with most Creative Suite and Creative Cloud subscriptions), you can use it to convert PDF documents to Word format on your Mac or PC. Its conversions are very high quality, and if your PDF document includes pictures with text, it will OCR the text so you can edit it as well. You can also use Acrobat Online to convert and OCR PDFs, though it costs $1.99/month. If you need the best PDF to Word conversion, though, it’s worth it. If you’ve scanned a document and want to convert it to Word format, it’s one of the few tools with consistently usable results.

If you’re using a Mac and have a copy of PDFPen 6, it can export PDFs to Word as well, complete with OCR. It costs $60, and includes many of Acrobat’s great editing and export features, so it's a great alternative option if you need to frequently export PDFs to Word.

Nitro Cloud
Nitro Cloud: the free PDF to Word conversion tool.

Alternatively, the next best option is a web app: Nitro Cloud. It’s free for converting up to 5 documents per month (each up to 5Mb or 50 pages long), perfect for one-off conversion needs. Just create a free account, then upload the PDF you want to convert directly from your computer or Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive accounts. Then, click the Convert to Word button. After a brief pause for it to convert the document, you can download it and open it in Word on your PC or Mac or in Word Online, or in a Word alternative such as Pages or Google Docs.

A converted PDF document from Nitro
Nitro Cloud's PDF conversion isn't perfect, but it's quite nice.

Nitro Cloud’s PDF to word conversion isn’t as perfect as Acrobat’s, but it’s far better than the built-in conversion in Word 2013. You’ll still have footers and heading styles brought over as in Word, but generally closer to the original document. There will still be random font and spacing oddities, but overall, the converted document will be quite nice.

Forms are especially surprising, since Nitro converts them almost perfectly. You can quite easily get a Word document out of most forms this way and, with minimal editing, get them looking the same as the original document.

A converted form from Nitro Cloud
A nearly perfect form export from Nitro Cloud

Turn Your Document Back Into a PDF

Whether you're using Word 2013 or an older version to edit your PDF, your finished document will be a Word file by default. If you want to save your edited document as a PDF again, it's easy to do that as well.

On a PC, just click the File tab and select the Share tab, then choose PDF and save the file with the file name you want. In Word Online, click the File tab, choose Print, then save the PDF it creates to your computer instead of printing it. On a Mac, click FileSave As..., then in the Format drop-down select PDF, and add the name you'd like.

Conclusion

PDF documents don’t have to be the impenetrable documents they seem at first. Word 2013’s built-in PDF import tool makes it as simple to edit a PDF just like any other document. You won’t have the document fidelity PDFs are prided for, but you will be able to edit them without having to buy another expensive app.

If you have any trouble getting your PDFs edited in Word, or have other favorite tools for exporting PDFs, let us know in the comments below.

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