No excuse for bad PDFs

I’m not alone in giving Meadville Lombard the hairy eyeball for its vague and shabby prospectus. Don’t let this happen to you.

I’ll not now go into the essentials of copy editing or plain English (I have some links for the plain English resources.) Instead, let’s consider the PDF itself.

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has recently been made an freely-implemented (“open”) document standard, cementing its position in the world of electronic texts. While most associated with its creator Adobe, there are a number of ways now to make a PDF document. Unfortunately, the all-too-common way is to drop a printed manuscript into a scanner and voila! — you get utter crap with no underlying text. All you have is an image of text. It’s like the fax machine has followed us.

I create PDFs in Linux two ways. The first uses a virtual printer through CUPS. (MacOS X uses CUPS, too, and I understand Mac users can do the same thing, but not being a Mac person, will have to defer to my readers.) Instead of a printed paper, you create a PDF file.

For Windows users, I commend PDFCreator. If you have an Ubuntu Linux install disk, you can use it after you have Windows booted up and download a number of Windows-only goodies; it’s an incentive to introduce Microsoft users to try open-source software on their own terms and PDFCreator is among them. (Or at least this used to be true; if you prefer you can download just the Windows software as TheOpenCD here.) Or you can download just this program here.

The other way — which I like a little less — is exporting from the office suite. (The name’s the URL and back.) The problem here is for Mac users without adding other software, but the derivitive NeoOffice project has made a new release and might be what you want.

Either way, you get good, clean PDF files.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks so much, Boy in the Bands! I really thought I’d have to drop hundreds of dollars on Adobe Acrobat to be able to make my own PDF documents. I am DELIGHTED to learn that is not the case–and from a fellow UU minister, no less.

    (I also saw the ML document and stopped reading because it was blurry and askew and took too much effort.)

  2. M/L has these horrible all-in-one printer-scanner-copier machines, they all work like crap, and yet they keep using them. I find it embarassing, particularly on this document that they are making such an effort to spread all over the world.

    But anyway. Mac users don’t have to have any additional software to make a PDF from any application – there is a menu button at the bottom left of the print dialogue box that will instantly “print” to a PDF with a click and a half (and a Save As). It’s happy.

  3. Mac users can go to the File menu in any programme, select Print, and then “Save as PDF” from the PDF Menu in the Print dialog box.

    Interestingly, while the printing system in the Mac OS is CUPS, as yours is in Linux, it’s not the PDF creation system add-on for CUPS that creates these on the Mac. The actual screen rendering engine for the Mac display is done in a system called “DisplayPDF”, a descendant of the DisplayPostScript system used in the NeXT operating system (from which Mac OS X itself is derived). Each window on the screen is an on-the-fly rendered PDF file, so saving a PDF of what you’re seeing becomes REALLY easy.


  4. How interesting. I bought a Brother all-in-one which is fine for what it is. It can print duplex and plays nice with Linux, so I’m happy. (It’s good for making copies of receipts as PDFs.)

    For any new Linux users who want the same functionality, install cups-pdf. In Ubuntu Linux, you can find it in the Synaptic Package Manger (System | Administration) or if you’re really daring and want to know what the terminal is for type sudo apt-get update (it will ask for the administration password and then scroll a bunch) and then sudo apt-get install cups-pdf. Password again, agree to install, and after it’s done scrolling, you’re done and can install the PDF as a generic postscript printer.

  5. I use CutePDF and love it! If you do a lot of work with MicroSoft Publisher or Word it is awesome.

    It works through the print function on your computor, is 100% free, and has worked perfectly since I installed it. Now granted, I imagine the other programs you mentioned have much better functions, but at least with CutePDF is better than the scan and pan you see all too often.

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