Fixing Text Reflow Issues when you Copy and Paste Text from PDFs

You’ve just copied some text from a PDF using the selection tool and pasted it into your word processor. Ack! Why doesn’t the text reflow?

Although PDF is primarily intended as an archive format, Acrobat users often want to take passages of text in a PDF and reuse them in a word processor or in email. For example, you may wish to cite part of an important court decision in a brief.

One frustration is that text copied from a PDF may have hard line endings. Depending on how the PDF was created, each line may have a paragraph return at the end.

Text formatted with hard line endings doesn’t reflow properly and can take a lot of time to clean up:

Hard Line Endings

THIS AGREEMENT WITNESSETH
that in consideration of the
premises and mutual

covenants and agreements
hereinafter contained, and for other
good and valuable

consideration (the receipt and
sufficiency of which is hereby
acknowledged by the parties

Text that Reflows

THIS AGREEMENT WITNESSETH that in consideration of the premises and mutual covenants and agreements hereinafter contained, and for other good and valuable consideration (the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged by the parties hereto), it is agreed by and between the parties hereto as follows:

One workaround is to use Acrobat Standard or Professional which can save PDFs to editable formats such as text files, rich text files and Word. In doing so, the hard line endings are generally eliminated.

Acrobat 8 simplifies the process somewhat by offering a new Export button in the Acrobat toolbar:

Export button from Acrobat 8

However, this workflow means saving out the file, finding the correct passage in the Word file, then copying that to your working document. That’s a lot work if you just want to copy a paragraph or two!

Fortunately, there is an easy way to eliminate hard line endings when copying text from a PDF.

Read on to learn how…


h3>Accessible Files Reflow

Tagged or accessible PDFs have structure that allows screen reading software used by the visually impaired to properly traverse complex documents.

One benefit for every Acrobat user is that tagged PDFs also contain information about where paragraphs start and stop.

Unfortunately, a good portion of the PDFs that you receive won’t be tagged properly, but it is easy and painless to add them.

For more background information on tags, read my Understanding Tags article.

Adding Tags

To add tags to PDF, choose Advanced—>Accessibility—>Add Tags to Document…

Menu pick screen shot

Acrobat will add tags to the document and open a Recognition Report which offers useful information about tagging:

Recognition Report screenshot

Generally speaking, Acrobat does a pretty good job of adding tags to indicate paragraphs, so I just close the Recognition Report window.

Save your document and your ready to cut and paste clean text that reflows properly!

Further Considerations

If you are scanning to PDF using Acrobat, Acrobat can automatically add tags for cut/paste reflow. Click the Make Accessible option in the Scan window. It’s on by default.

Image-only PDFs—created from a scanner—may only contain a picture of page and won’t have selectable text. Acrobat Standard and Professional can use optical character recognition (OCR) to make text selectable on these pages. Choose Document—>Recognize Text using OCR…

You will still need to add tags to these OCR’d files as outlined in this article.

If you have a lot of PDFs which need tags added, use the Batch Processing feature in Acrobat Professional. You can learn more in my article on Batch OCR.

Creating tagged, accessible documents should be a best practice for everyone.

When you create PDF using the one-button PDF creators (sometimes called PDF Makers) installed by Acrobat into Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, tagging is on by default. Note that printing to the Adobe PDF Print Driver does not create a tagged document. For this reason, I always recommend using the button or menu item if it is available in your application.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a PDF creation solution from another vendor that creates properly tagged PDFs from common office formats.

I mention this not to disparage other products but to encourage you to ask for this feature from your vendors. That will make PDFs a lot more useful to all of us.

3 Responses to Fixing Text Reflow Issues when you Copy and Paste Text from PDFs

  1. Sheryl says:

    This is so useful!

  2. Virginia Hench says:

    I am still having a problem when I need to quote from a transcript into a word processing document. In a transcript, each line is numbered on the left. When I select a couple of lines of text, with the numbers, and then paste it, the pasted material behaves as if it were columns. In other words, it pastes the line numbers, one to a line, and then below the lines with the line numbers, it pastes the lines of text. It takes a long time to clean up. Is there a way to make it read straignt across?
    EXAMPLE: If I select the following from a transcript –
    1 THE COURT; So, you are offering this for bla
    2 bla bla bla bla
    3 MS JONES, your Honor,
    I would like it to come out as above. Instead, when I paste it, it comes out as below:
    1
    2
    3
    THE COURT, So, you are offering this for bla
    bla bla bla bla
    MS JONES, your Honor

    Any way to fix this? It would be much appreciated.
    Thanks, Virginia

    • Rick Borstein says:

      In Acrobat, hold down the ALT (Opt on Mac) to create a rectangular selection of text. Then, either copy the text to the clipboard or (with the text selected), right-click and choose Save Selection As. I am referring to AX and AXI.