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Acrobat to a Paperless Office

by Julie Starr

Organizing my electronic and physical files has always been a chore. My Mac OS X desktop is littered with items I mean to either discard or file. I just don't do it in a timely manner.

I'm making improvements, however. I picked up David Allen's Getting Things Done for my iPod and went about instituting the filing system he outlined in the audio book. If something is worth keeping, file it. Holding useless files obscures useful ones. Slowly my physical files came under control, then the electronic ones. The upcoming version of OS X 10.4, a.k.a. Tiger, introduces Spotlight to "find anything, anywhere" as Apple puts it. Even if the advanced searching capabilities weren't available today, it's no excuse for not organizing your stuff.

My current organizational scheme is very simplistic. I have one root folder named "Filing Cabinet" to hold all my files, organized into folders holding other folders or files. Every time I download a file or create a new one, I make sure I deposit it to the correct location or create a new subfolder for it. There are a number of information organizers available. DEVONthink is one I ran across that seems to fit the bill. Maybe I'll sit down long enough to see if that or any other system works better than my basic filing cabinet system.

After the initial round of organizing, I still had physical papers flying around my desk -- most either duplicate marked-up copies or printouts used for short amounts of time. As it turns out, I like to mark up what I read -- a lot. When I come across a web page with a tutorial, my first inclination is to print out a copy and mark all the things I should focus on. Maybe I would not be compelled to do this if I had a 17" PowerBook or an external monitor. But as it stands, I lose my place on the web page as soon as I switch to Xcode or a Terminal window.

Research journal and conference papers are another matter. Graduate students usually have tens or hundreds of fairly dense research papers to recall. It's very common to jot down notes and highlight the most relevant points in each paper before moving on.

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Refreshing your memory months later requires locating the annotated copy and review, but is far less time-consuming than rereading the entire paper again. I asked a few professors how they managed their research papers. All of them said they print a copy off, annotate, then file. In my case, I ended up with multiple annotated copies of a few papers. A first copy would be at home when I needed to read it at the office, or vice versa. In this day and age, it seemed like there should be a better, electronic solution.

What I really wanted was everything on my laptop and less printed paper to keep track of. My plan was to use the markup tools in Adobe Acrobat 6 to tackle the problem. I'm not to a paperless office just yet, but I'm getting there. For OS X, it's a natural. If you can print it, you can save as a PDF. Below is an introduction to Acrobat for markup if you too want to aim for less paper in your life.

Why Acrobat?

Acrobat is an excellent program for document distribution. Most users are familiar with the freely available Acrobat Reader, allowing anyone to view PDF documents. The full-blown version of Acrobat offers a range of tools to manage document distribution beyond just converting other formats to PDF. If you just have single documents to distribute, the built-in capabilities of OS X suffice. However, if you would like to add annotations, track reviews, merge multiple PDF files, or add custom headers and footers, Acrobat might be for you.

Document distribution is fundamentally different than document creation. Comparing Acrobat and Microsoft Word, both are great at one with limited capabilities for the other.

Acrobat allows minor text edits to PDF documents, but recommends most edits be done on the original document. Word is very popular for generating documents, but requires care for document distribution.

Some individuals learned the hard way Word documents contain a lot more information than what recipients see. I thought Office 2004 corrected this oversight, but alas, the Help document (as seen in the picture below) for Word essentially says one should review and make visible revision marks, comments, and hidden text before distribution. If you must rely on Word for distribution, the best tip I've seen thus far is to convert your Word document to RTF, removing hidden data and other document properties. If your receiving party insists on Word, convert the RTF version back to Word.

Word document distribution advice
Word document distribution advice.

In this article I'm focusing on annotating all types of files. Acrobat is the only program I'm aware of suited for this purpose.

Get to PDF

Before marking up a document, it must be a PDF or converted to PDF. There are three options within Acrobat and Mac OS X to aid in PDF conversion:

  • Save to PDF
  • Scan hardcopy
  • Web capture

The "Save As PDF" option (as seen below, circled in red) can be found in any application running on Mac OS X. In the menu for the application, select File, then Print. In the Print dialogue, choose Save As PDF. The only application I've run into where this didn't work was in Acrobat itself - it's not necessary.

Save As PDF ...

For hardcopy documents, scan them in as images using at least 300x300 dpi resolution, black and white. In Acrobat, under the Document menu, select the Paper Capture (OCR) function to use the optical character recognition tools. This will "recognize" text in your scanned image, depending on the quality of your scan. If the capture fails, you won't be able to use any annotations tools dependent on the underlying text -- more on that below.

Although Acrobat includes a web spider for downloading web sites -- you can even specify levels for your capture to restrict itself to the given path or server -- I almost never use it. Most web sites have ads and site navigation around articles for online readers, but you may not have to include those in the capture. Thankfully, most sites, such as this one, offer print-ready versions of articles with fewer ads and typically include the entire story on one web page. Each article has a Print icon (seen here) allowing access to the print-friendly version.

Example of link to printer-friendly version of articles at Mac DevCenter  Example of link to printer-friendly version of articles at Mac DevCenter.


To begin annotating PDF documents, start Acrobat and get your workspace ready by setting up the toolbars most useful for annotating. From the Views menu, select the Toolbars submenu and activate Advanced Commenting, Commenting, and Properties Bar as seen in the picture and circled in red.

The three toolbars needed, circled in red
The three toolbars needed, circled in red.

Acrobat includes numerous annotating tools. Here's a rundown of a few I find helpful:

  • Note Tool
  • Indicate Text
  • Highlighting
  • Drawing Tool
  • Text Box Tool
  • Pencil Tool

I'll review how to use each of these tools and give examples of their usage in the next sections.

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