A Technical Writing Project Using Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Illustrator

Working with PDF Files

This week brought the first round of document editing. After spending last week looking for source files and confirming that at least thirty documents only have PDF files, I spent most of this week editing those PDF files.

PDF files are not intended for heavy editing. They are resistant even to light editing. In fact, one reason the company brought in a new contractor (me) was that none of the current staff were willing to attempt it. The rumor I have heard is that the contractor I replaced became “fed up” and he quit rather than take this assignment — good for him and better for me. I need the work and I do not mind the job.

Using Adobe Acrobat

As you probably know, you create PDF files using a program called Adobe Acrobat. There are some freeware translators out there that will turn a Word (or other) file into a PDF file, but Acrobat is the official program and it can turn just about any document into a PDF.

Using Acrobat, you can make minor edits to a PDF file, but Acrobat documents are very sensitive. Typing a single character can throw several lines off, destroy tables and cause all sort of other troubles. Alternately, it can be relatively uneventful and painless. You will not know until you type in that character.

Another problem with PDF files are embedded fonts. Because PDF files are meant to be read across platforms (Windows/Mac/Unix), many document publishers choose to embed particular fonts in order to ensure they get the desired look for their document. This means that the PDF file itself contains all the font information necessary to display and print that font, whether the viewer’s computer is equipped with that font or not. Normally, embedding fonts is a good idea, but it can make editing those documents (something you would normally never bother to do) complicated.

An important aspect of embedded fonts is that your computer will use the embedded font even if you have the identical font on your own computer. This means that, when editing, Acrobat may refuse to change or format a character because it uses an embedded font. You can work around these but the solutions are slow and tedious.

Using Adobe Illustrator to Edit PDF Files

One lesser-known solution to many of these problems is to use Adobe Illustrator to edit PDF files. Illustrator gives you much greater control over PDF pages and text formats. Illustrator has the ability to show individual blocks of text, which makes it clearer what you will change by typing something in. In Acrobat, you can only discover how much text is in a unit through trial and error. In addition, with Illustrator you can select a block of text and drag it to where you want it on the page (try doing that in Acrobat!).

The downside of Illustrator is that you can only load and edit one page of a PDF document at a time. Illustrator can also run into problems with embedded fonts. Its solution, however, is different from Acrobat’s response. Illustrator will replace an embedded font with a similar font. Unfortunately, the process tends to go smoothly only for letters and numbers. It goes less smoothly for punctuation marks, and very badly for special characters. Technical documents (and these documents in particular) have many special characters. I must frequently replace dozens of characters before I ever get to make the intended editorial changes to the documents. As I go through this process, I remind myself that the company pays me by the hour.

The changes, as I have indicated before, are minor. The company refined its manufacturing process and eliminated an outdated element across a wide platform of products. Due to the change, they have redefined package codes for those products. Because these are legacy documents, mostly dating 1994 to 1996, the products themselves are near the end of their lifecycle. Instead of inserting the new codes, I am changing the codes to a variable “x” so that (they hope) no future changes will need to be made. Some documents merely need a graphic (and the copyright info) updated and others require many small changes. I must, however, review each document must in detail to find these instances. The instances cannot be tracked solely through searches because many of the codes reside in graphics.

Technical Writing Jobs

This is not a job most technical writing books describe, but it is a common technical writing job. Not every job is about documenting new products or telling people how to accomplish things. Much of the work involves datasheets, specifications and reference guides. This is dull work even when you are creating the documents, and duller when you are merely updating them. This is also the sort of work that proves it is not always your writing skills that get you a job ? often it is your tools skills. Because I know how to use Acrobat, Illustrator and FrameMaker, I was a solid candidate for this job. Many of the jobs I have gotten came to me because I knew a certain set of development tools. Below is a core set of development tools every technical writer working today should know.


  • FrameMaker
  • Acrobat
  • Illustrator
  • PhotoShop


  • DreamWeaver
  • Fireworks
  • RoboHelp


  • Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access)
  • FrontPage
  • Visio
  • Project

Additional Resources

2 thoughts on “A Technical Writing Project Using Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Illustrator

  1. One way that I found to edit a PDF document is using OpenOffice3.0. With the Sun PDF Import Extension that was released recently, we can import PDF document into OpenOffice, edit it, and export it back into a PDF format.. It only allows some basic editing, but it works well for me :-)

    Michaels last blog post..Use Emoticon On Blogger Blog

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