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So what’s wrong with PDFs?

Help for writers

An editor's take on using pdfs


So what's wrong with PDFs?

Well, nothing, if you use them in the way they are intended. PDFs (Portable Download Files) are designed to carry finished documents and forms; that's why the forms you get from local authorities and other bodies are often in PDF format. The idea is that the file does not deform or glitch when you download it; you can only fill in the blanks (this, you may have noticed, is often more efficient on the printed version than the open file; a PDF needs to be carefully designed so that it doesn't de-format when extra text is added, and not everyone is expert enough to create PDF documents that work properly). More to the point, you can't really tamper with the original content or format of the file.

And there's the rub. If you need your file to be edited, PDF is not the ideal format; in fact, it is practically the worst format you can choose. Why? Precisely because PDFs are designed not to be tampered with or changed. When you stop to think about it, editing is no more or less than a process of changing - and correcting - your file. You can, in principle, edit a PDF; but the tools for doing so are less efficient than those for Microsoft Word files, and the results can be, to say the least, patchy. At root, a PDF is a format designed not to be edited.

So, if you want your book or document to be edited, choose a file format that allows for efficient editing, and produces results that are acceptable and useful to you. Word is perfect for this, which is why it is so widely used by writers. When your book or document is finished, you are free to convert it to PDF if you so wish. But until then, keep it in a format that allows you, and any editor you commission to help you, to make changes and improve the document.

More broadly, this applies to all formatting: it's fun to play with designs and finishes for a book, but it's not necessary when that book is in manuscript form, and may actually interfere with efficient editing and rewriting. During the process of writing and editing, the text is what matters; design is secondary. So for the best results, and the easiest journey from idea to finished manuscript, keep things simple: use a format that supports editing and rewriting, at least until the process of writing and editing is complete. You'll be making things easier for yourself, and helping your editor out too.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.