Two Quick, Easy No-Cost Ways to Convert a PDF into a Word Doc

There are two types of PDF files that concern writers and from which writers would like to extract editable text.

The first is created by exporting a text document from a word processor or publishing program into a PDF file. The second type is created by scanning printed material and producing a PDF file.

(The second type, the scan, is actually an image file that requires further conversion via OCR (optical character recognition). OCR conversion requires special software, and it falls into the category of “you get what you pay for” and will be the subject of another blog post.)

This post concerns the first type of PDF. A common request I get is: “I had someone do a print layout for my book and it’s been edited and updated, but it’s in a PDF and I need a final copy as a Word doc. Can you help?”  No problem. It takes just a minute, so I don’t charge people to do it. (I do, however, charge an arm and a leg to clean up conversions. Just kidding, only an arm.)

The good news: Converting a PDF file into a Word doc is easier than ever and the results are better, too. And, you probably have the tools on your computer already.

The bad news: Conversion is always a mixed bag—some results are vastly superior and some will make you tear your hair out.

The good news about the bad news is that if you know what is happening, you can fix it without ending up in a weepy, shivering, fetal ball. Or sending people like me an anxious email saying, “I’ve spent months trying to fix this fripping’ Word doc and I’ve torn all my hair out and can you please, please, please help meeeeee!” Then wondering what is wrong with you when in a couple of hours I send you a fully restored Word doc—nothing wrong with you, but I’ve recovered millions of words from PDF files and pretty much know what I’m doing. 😉

Use MS Word to Convert the PDF

If you have a version of MS Word that is capable of exporting a PDF file then it is capable of importing a PDF file. How to know? Open a doc in Word and click Save As. In the tool box is a dropdown menu of different file types: .doc, .docx, .rtf,. txt, and a bunch of others. If the list includes PDF, you’re golden. Conversion is as easy as opening a document.

In Word, click on File > Open and select the PDF file you want to open. (Be patient. Depending on how fast your computer is and how large the PDF file is, conversion may take several minutes.)

Once it is open on your computer do a SAVE AS into the DOCX file format.

In the example the Show feature is activated so you can see the paragraph returns and other formatting.

What I like about this method:

  • Headers and footers are rendered as headers and footers (for the most part, depending on how the original PDF was created), meaning they can be quickly deleted or safely ignored.
  • It’s not horrible about retaining paragraphs.

The disadvantages:

  • It can hide hyphenation. (Sometimes the hyphenation is there but invisible and Word will not allow a search for them—if this occurs, you’ll need a text editor to clean them up. See below.)
  • If the fonts used in the pdf are not available on your computer, Word will substitute fonts. If Word is unable to read the font, it will insert black boxes, pink boxes or gibberish.
  • Images and other graphics can make the file difficult or impossible to open. This works best for a text-only document.
  • Depending on the source PDF, Word can go into overdrive attempting to retain the formatting. That can result in massive (and slow!) files.

Use Google Drive to Convert the PDF

You may have to create a Google account (gmail account) in order to use Google Drive, but it’s free and widely available.

  1. Go to Google Apps > Drive
  2. Click New > File Upload
  3. Select the PDF file you want to convert
  4. When the box opens saying “1 Upload Complete”, click on the file name
  5. Tell it to “Open with Google Docs”
  6. File > Download As > Microsoft Word (docx)
  7. Open the downloaded file in Word
  8. Save As to make sure the new Word doc is on your computer.

The advantages:

  • The PDF file is editable in Google Docs, so if you don’t have Word or don’t want to use it, you can work on the PDF directly. VERY IMPORTANT!: This version remains on the cloud, not your computer, so if you want it saved on your computer you will have to download it.
  • No real formatting to fight with.
  • It makes very little effort to convert images and graphics during conversion, so it rarely chokes up or crashes because of it.

The disadvantages:

  • Headers and footers will have to be removed manually.
  • Hyphenation will have to be cleaned up manually.
  • Spacing issues.
  • Not fabulous about retaining paragraphs.

Tips for Making Clean Up Merely Mildly Annoying (as opposed to having you curled up in a fetal ball, quietly weeping)

  • Forget trying to retain the formatting from the PDF file. The text is what matters, focus on it.
  • Work in Web Layout view rather than Print Layout view so that you can adjust the width of the screen to approximate the width of the PDF text. This will make checking for and fixing wayward paragraphs easier.
  • Make sure all scene breaks, page breaks and deliberate blank lines are clearly tagged with some kind of marker so you know exactly where they are. Don’t use extra hard returns or actual page breaks to mark them—you’ll regret it.
  • If possible, work with the Word doc and the PDF open on the screen side by side so you can see scene breaks, page breaks, deliberate blank lines and special formatting such as italics.
  • Activate the Show feature (click the pilcrow icon ¶ in the Home Ribbon menu) so you can see such things as paragraph returns, soft returns, tabs and spaces.
  • If Word is having trouble reading a font, you will need to try another method. Contact me (see below) and I’ll see if I can find a solution for you.
  • Clear the formatting. First, make sure all your scene breaks, page breaks and deliberate blank lines are clearly marked. Second, tag your italics (easy way: https://jwmanus.wordpress.com/tag/italics-in-ebooks/). To clear the formatting. Ctrl+a to select all text then click the Clear All Formatting icon in the Home Ribbon. This will leave you with a blank slate, essentially, and remove any unwanted formatting Word has applied. Apply the Normal style to the selected text then modify the style so it suits you. Restore the italics.

Quick Find/Replace terms useful for clean up:

Get rid of unwanted page breaks:
In the Find field: ^m
In the Replace field: leave blank
Replace All

Get rid of unwanted section breaks:
In the Find field: ^b
In the Replace field: leave blank
Replace All

Turn soft returns into hard returns:
In the Find field: ^l
In the Replace field: ^p
Replace All

To find and delete unwanted hyphens (in most cases, discretionary hyphens that are turned into single dashes have a space after them):
In the Find field: -(hit the space bar once to create a blank space)
In the Replace field: leave blank
Replace All

What if Word has hidden the hyphens?

It’s a common problem. It’s frustrating because you might never know it happened until you format your book as an ebook or send it in an email to someone. To find out if Word has done this, you will need a text editor. On a Windows machine, Notepad works fine. Open a blank document in the text editor. Use Ctrl+a to select all the text in the Word doc. Copy it, then paste it into the text editor. If you see this character ¬ then Word has replaced the hyphenation with “non-characters” that will cause trouble down the line. Word’s Find/Replace won’t do you any good. You will need to tag your italics, copy/paste the entire document into the text editor then use the editor’s Find/Replace function to delete the hyphenation.

_______________________________

If neither of these conversion methods works for you, feel free to contact me at jayewmanus at gmail.com. I have other tools on hand that can convert difficult files. If the conversion does work for you, but you’re struggling with restoring the text, explain your problem in the comments and let’s figure it out.

 

 

 

 

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Restore Your Back List Books: Step 1: Scan and Convert

bookstackAs I write this I have around a two million words worth of back list books sitting on my desk, awaiting conversion from print into ebooks. In the past week alone I have scanned, converted and restored over 400K words to the stage where I can send the doc files to the writer for proofreading.

Tedious. Yes. Daunting, perhaps. Expensive, sometimes. Impossible and difficult, no way. Writers with back list, please, if you have gotten the rights back to your work, don’t let either expense or the thought of so much work stop you from bringing your back list back to life and reissuing it as either ebooks or print-on-demand or both.

Summertime is a fabulous time for restoring back list. Especially for the do-it-yourselfer, since you can take your laptop out on the deck and do the tedious work while working on your tan. (I like to queue up oddball indie films on Netflix and semi-watch and semi-listen to them while I’m working.) Over the next few blog posts, I’ll take you step-by-step through the process.

Understand, this process ranges from very expensive (having someone else do ALL the work for you) to no-cash-outlay at all (takes time). One way I save writers money–and time–is by doing the scanning, conversion and gross restoration (which I can do in hours) then sending them a Word doc in manuscript format so they can do the fine tuning and proofreading. It’s still tedious, but it’s not rip-your-hair-out frustrating.

A word of caution: There are some services that promise to scan, convert and turn your print book into an ebook, all for one very low price. This is the process used by many of the big publishing houses and this is why so many of their (your!) ebooks are broken, ugly, and riddled with formatting errors and typos. Research those services extensively. If there is any hint that they convert pdf files into ebooks, walk away. Run away! There is the right way to do this and there is the super-speed, el-cheapo, don’t give a shit about the quality of product way–and nothing in between.

This is the process for the RIGHT way:

  1. Scan the book into a pdf file
  2. Convert the pdf using OCR into a document file
  3. Gross restoration: remove headers, footers, page numbers, and bugshit produced when conversion “reads” speckles, debris, foxing, watermarks or penciled notations as characters; restore paragraphs; restore special formatting such as italics or bolded text; remove all formatting artifacts embedded by the pdf AND the word processor.
  4. Fine tune and proofread.
  5. Format the fully restored text for either digital or print-on-demand.
  6. Proofread the ebook and/or print-on-demand.

Skip any of the above steps and you’ll end up with a substandard product that is disrespectful to your written work AND to your readers. There is no way to skip any of those steps and turn out a great product. I can, however, share quite a few tricks and tips that will make the process easier for you.

STEP 1: SCAN AND CONVERT

Two ways to do this.

SOMEONE ELSE: If you do a Google search for “book scanning services” you will turn up hundreds of companies that will scan and convert your printed book into a workable document file. Or, you can run down to your local office supply store (Kinko’s or Staples) and they will do the job while you wait and give you a CD or thumbdrive containing your file to take home. Prices are all over the board. I recommend you budget $100. Chances are, the job can be done far more cheaply than that, and you can use your change to have a really nice lunch while you’re waiting for your book to be scanned.

DO-IT-YOURSELF: It is possible you have everything you need already to scan and convert your books.

  • X-acto knife or paper cutter
  • Scanner
  • External storage device or cloud service
  • Conversion program

“X-acto knife? Paper cutter? Jaye, what are you talking about?”

To easily scan your books, you will need to take them apart. The easiest way to do this is to run down the office supply store and have them chop off the spines. They’ll charge you a couple of bucks and it only takes minutes. One BIG caution here. If your mass market paperback is decades old (or sometimes, only a few years old, depending on how cheap-o the original publisher was) the paper could be badly degraded to the point where any rough handling can tear it, crinkle or shred pages, or even break off chunks. The best way to cut off their spines is by hand–gently. I use a metal ruler and an X-acto knife (I buy blades in bulk, so I always have fresh blades). If you want to do this at home, a good paper cutter (available at any hobby and craft store) will do the job nicely. (This is also a good job for a bored kid–“Mom, I have noooothing to do!” “Here, darling, chop the spine off this book.”)

It takes me about ten minutes to despine a fragile old paperback by hand. Not a big deal.

What if it’s a rare hardcover and you don’t want it chopped and destroyed? That is going to cost you–even if you do it yourself. You will have to copy each page (one page to a sheet, please–doing it two-up will turn into a restoration nightmare), then scan the copies. Nice thing about this is, though, if you use a heavy weight bond copy paper (at least 20#) you can run the sheets through a high speed scanner and it’ll take minutes instead of hours.

IMPORTANT TIP: If you’re chopping the book apart yourself, make sure you remove ALL the binding glue. It can jam your scanner or copier, or even melt into the works.

What if you don’t have a scanner? Double check because you just might. Most printers sold these days are multi-purpose: print, copy, scan, fax. If you don’t have a scanner, it might be cost effective to invest in one. For less than $200 bucks you can get a really good multi-purpose printer. (My home multi-purpose printer was on sale for under $150 and it will do double-sided scans in bulk at a pretty good clip–ain’t technology grand?)

You want to output your scans as pdf files. And those are huge. Hence, you’ll want either an external storage device (such as a flashdrive or an external hard drive) or a cloud service (such as Dropbox). It will make handling the files ever so much easier and keep your computer from having hissy fits and being draggy.

QUICK TIP: Rubber bands. Keep a good supply on hand. Cats, kids, open windows, fans, a careless hand wave, and there goes all those pages you cut apart. Old paperback pages are so flimsy they’ll glide under furniture. Keep your work banded and save yourself some headaches.

IMPORTANT TIP: Always do a test run with the front or back matter before you run pages through a sheet feeder or a high-speed scanner. Fragile, flimsy, brittle paper can be eaten by the machine. Pages can twist and turn and wrinkle from the heat. Some books must be hand scanned on the bed, one sheet at a time.

Some useful things to know about scanning:

  • If your scanner allows it, scan in black and white. Your output files will be smaller and more readable.
  • Experiment with the resolution and go with the lowest resolution that gives you a workable scan. The higher the resolution, the bigger your files will be AND the greater the amount of speckling and debris the scan will pick up. The only time you need to scan at a high resolution is if your book has illustrations or photographs. In that case, you might want to do one run at a lower setting for the text, then do a high resolution scan of your images.
  • If the pages are so flimsy there is significant bleed-thru from the opposing pages, you will need to scan them via the bed (rather than the sheet feeder). Use a sheet of black card stock as a backer and that will reduce or eliminate the bleed-thru.

CONVERSION

The very best program I have found is Adobe Acrobat XI. Not only will it compile all your files (if you have to hand scan the pages, you could end up with hundreds of individual files), but it will quickly and (fairly) cleanly convert the pdf into a workable Word document. It’s a bit pricy and not a program for a person doing one or two jobs. If you have an extensive back list and intend to do the restoration yourself, then it is worth the investment because it will save you tons of time. Some people use it for creating print-on-demand books, too.

There are also hundreds of programs (many as free downloads) and online services (also, many that are free) that will convert your pdf/s into a workable document. Do a Google search for “pdf conversion” and you’ll have a wide variety to choose from.

IMPORTANT TIP: Results will vary. Before you download any program or pay for a subscription or use an online service, test a few pages and see how they look. NO OCR conversion will produce perfect results, but some conversions are much, MUCH better than others and therefore much easier for you to restore the text back to its original glory. It’s worth an hour or so of your time to find the best one for you.

There you go. Your book is scanned and converted and ready for restoration. You all are lucky in that I’ve learned a lot from doing a lot and I’ll save you a LOT of fumbling around with my many tips and tricks. Watch this space for the next post: STEP 2: Gross restoration.