Editing and annotating PDF files with Preview

Annotating PDF files

In our last lesson I described how to annotate image files—and many of those tools also work with PDF files. You can append rectangles, ovals, lines, arrows, text fields, and word- and thought-bubbles to your PDFs, just as you can images. But Preview provides some additional tools designed specifically with PDFs in mind.

The first is the Markup tool, which you can access most easily by clicking the toolbar button whose icon looks like a highlighter. The icon is appropriate because this tool works almost exactly like a highlighting pen. Just choose a color from the menu and then drag your mouse pointer over the text that you want to highlight. The background immediately around that text will adopt that color, and a new entry will appear in the Highlights & Notes pane. The Markup tool menu also includes Underline and Strikethrough commands, which do what they say. All of these options can be slathered on together. You can highlight a paragraph in purple, choose Underline and drag again to underline the text, and then choose Strikethrough and drag yet again to add strikethrough marks to the text.

To remove highlighting from a word, sentence, or block of text, choose Tools > Show Inspector (Command-I), click the last tab in the resulting window (the Annotations Inspector), select the annotation you’d like to delete, and press your Mac’s Delete key.

When you choose View > Show Edit Toolbar (or click the Edit Toolbar button in Preview’s toolbar), you’ll see the Edit toolbar that we explored last week. When you view a PDF file, however, the Edit toolbar’s contents will differ from those of the toolbar you know. In this case you’ll find two new entries to the right of the Thought Bubble button—Note and Signature. Let’s examine each.

Note: Preview’s notes are intended to mimic paper sticky notes—short bits of text placed on a PDF’s page. You can create notes in a couple of ways. The first is to click the Note tool (it will turn blue to indicate that it’s active, and the selection cursor will turn into a crosshair cursor). To add a note, click the page where you’d like the note to appear, and enter text in the small yellow text field that appears. When you’re done, click outside the note field. To move the note, drag it to the destination of your choice.

Just highlight some text and append a note to it.

That’s all well and good, but a note floating in space doesn’t tell you what it’s connected to. Placing a note at the top of a page might be a useful way to indicate general instructions that apply to the whole page; but when you want to refer to something very specific, you’re better off taking a different approach.

Select the Markup tool, and highlight some text. Now Control-click (or right-click) the highlighted text and select Add Note. The yellow text field will appear. Enter your text and click outside the text field, and the note will appear at the end of the highlighted text.

You can view all of your annotations in the Annotations Inspector tab.

Finally, you can open the Inspector (Command-I), click the Annotations Inspector tab, choose an annotation that appears in the associated list, and click Click to Add Note. A note field will appear above the selected annotation.

Signature: In the not-too-terribly-distant past, Apple added the ability to append your signature to a PDF file. Essentially, this feature lets you graft a picture of your signature onto an existing PDF file. This is not the same thing as a “digital signature,” which is a more secure method of electronically signing documents. Preview’s style of document signing is far more casual—something to use when you’re signing an IOU to a former friend, for example. Here’s how to create and use such a thing.

Launch Preview, open its preferences, and select the Signatures tab. Click the plus (+) button at the bottom of the window. A Signature Capture window will appear, and your Mac’s camera will light up. Scrawl out your John Hancock on a piece of paper, and place that paper in front of the camera so that the signature aligns with the blue line in the viewer area. Signature Capture will grab your signature and display it to the right of the viewer. Click the Accept button, and the tool will add the signature to Preview’s list of available signatures.

With the aid of your Mac's camera, you can add a signature to your PDF files.

When you need to sign a PDF, choose Tools > Annotate > Signature. A crosshairs cursor will appear. Drag it, and your signature will appear. (If you’ve stored more than one signature, click the Signature menu in the toolbar and select the signature that you wish to use.) Drag the signature to the location where you’d like it to appear, and resize it if necessary. Save the PDF, and your signature will be embedded in the document.

Selecting text

Preview doesn’t let you change a PDF document’s text, but you can select text within that document, copy it, and paste it elsewhere. Unless you have a tool other than Text Selection chosen, it’s simple. Let’s say that I want to paste some text from a PDF file into a TextEdit document. In Preview I select the text and press Command-C to copy it. Then I create a new TextEdit document and press Command-V to paste that text. (A better choice is to press Shift-Option-Command-V, which is equivalent to Edit > Paste and Match Style. This gets rid of any line breaks and hyphenations that Preview might have added.)

A typical text selection.

But suppose that you want to copy text across columns. For example, you might want to copy two columns of text that appear in a page’s sidebar occupying the upper two-thirds of a page. If I employ the usual selection tool, I’ll also copy all of the text that appears in the first column beneath the sidebar. There’s a trick to avoid doing that.

Hold down the Option key and drag over the text you want to copy—even if it spans multiple columns. When you let go of the mouse/trackpad, just that text will be selected, ready to be copied.

And while we’re on the subject of selecting blocks of text, let’s look at the Rectangular Selection tool that sits to the right of the Text Selection tool. You use this tool to draw a selection rectangle around whatever you wish to capture on a PDF page. You can then copy this selection. In most cases, when you paste the selection into a new document, it gets pasted as an image—an uneditable picture. But if your choose Preview’s File > New From Clipboard command, the selection will appear as editable PDF text. Microsoft Word also offers the option of accepting the selected text as an image or a PDF snippet.

With this information and what I’ve told you about editing and annotating images with Preview, you should be able to do far more than simply view pictures and PDFs.

Next week: A quick look at QuickTime Player

Shop ▾
arrow up Amazon Shop buttons are programmatically attached to all reviews, regardless of products' final review scores. Our parent company, IDG, receives advertisement revenue for shopping activity generated by the links. Because the buttons are attached programmatically, they should not be interpreted as editorial endorsements.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter