You Can’t Un-PDF a File

At least a couple of times a year, someone brings me a PDF file and asks if I can “un-PDF” it for them so they can make changes to it.

Unfortunately, converting to PDF is a one-way process. There’s simply no way to convert a PDF back to its original format.* If you find yourself in this situation, your best bet is to do whatever you can to locate a copy of the original file.

How do I do that?

Start by asking the person who gave you the PDF. If they didn’t create it, they may know who did.

If that doesn’t work, try looking at the Document Properties in Adobe Acrobat. (File > Properties) If you’re very lucky, the author’s name or username may be listed there.

That didn’t work. What next?

You have a few other options, depending on what you need to do with the file.

Edit with Acrobat

If you have a copy of Acrobat Pro and you just need to make small text edits to the file, you may be able to edit the PDF directly.

Edit with a third-party PDF editor

If you don’t have Acrobat Pro, there are a number of other PDF editing programs available.

Export the text

If you just need to pull the text out and are willing to lose some or all of the formatting and graphics, you can export the text to another file format. The latest versions of Acrobat have a Save as Microsoft Word feature (File > Save As > Microsoft Word) that does a fairly decent job of converting PDFs to Word documents. The resulting Word document won’t look exactly like the PDF—you’ll lose some image quality, things will get shifted a little, etc. — but it will probably be better than starting from scratch.

Older versions of Acrobat will allow you to save the text in Rich Text Format (RTF), which can be opened in Word, Wordpad or just about any other word processor. It doesn’t save much of the formatting, though, so you’ll have to edit the text and then recreate the design.

Edit in Illustrator

Unless you’re a designer, you probably don’t have Adobe Illustrator. But on the off chance that you do (and you know how to use it), you can try opening the PDF in Illustrator and editing it there. This is the approach I use when I need to edit the graphics and colors in a PDF, and it has saved me countless hours of work.

*The only exception (that I’m aware of) is if the file was created in Adobe Illustrator. It is usually possible to convert an Illustrator file (.AI) to PDF and then back to AI.