The Open Desk

Margie Beilharz

Freelance editor and writer in science, environment, education, health

Making a PDF more readable with bookmarks

Let’s say you’ve created or edited a report – it’s all nicely laid out and you will be saving it as a PDF file. Before you do, take some time to think about PDF bookmarks. With a bit of forethought, you can make the document much more user-friendly than a long, unstructured PDF.

For one of my regular gigs (writing on health matters), I need to look up lots of scientific publications. Compare these two PDFs I downloaded recently.

The one with helpful bookmarks:

PDF of document showing heading navigation pane on the left hand side

The one without bookmarks (I’m showing the thumbnails):

PDF of document showing page thumbnails in the navigation pane on the left hand side

Clearly it’s easier to find your way around the document with the bookmarks on the left, even though the thumbnails do provide some help.

This left-hand pane, by the way, is the Navigation Pane. To see it in my version of Adobe Acrobat, I go to the View menu and select Show/Hide > Navigation panes > Bookmarks. There is a whole list of options, including Thumbnails. The ones you have selected will show up as icons on the very left, so you can easily swap between them. Bookmarks look like a folded over ribbon.

Because I have Adobe Acrobat on my computer, my Word document has an Adobe plug-in which allows me to save a Word document ‘as Adobe PDF’. Doing that automatically turns my headings (using styles) into bookmarks – nice!

But if you get a document that doesn’t have bookmarks, you can also create your own in Adobe Acrobat (as long as the document’s security settings allow it). For example, I’ve added lots of bookmarks to a PDF style guide I use regularly that came without them. There are also third-party apps that offer the ability to make bookmarks.

There’s one more detail you can finesse in Adobe Acrobat to make your document really user-friendly.

In File > Properties, click on the Initial View tab. There you can choose which navigation tabs will open when someone opens the PDF. I suggest selecting Navigation tab: Bookmarks Panel and Page (as in the image below). Then anyone opening the document will see the navigation pane with the bookmarks. You can also select the appropriate page layout for your design. Setting this up ensures that your readers get the experience you want them to have.

Obviously, I’ve been envisaging a very simple desktop publishing process – from Word to PDF – as you might do for a quick report or handout or a draft stage of a longer publishing process. Yet, some final PDF documents, which have been properly formatted InDesign, don’t provide bookmarks for navigation (like that style guide I mentioned). So making sure there are bookmarks is something to consider for all sorts of PDF publications you are involved in producing.

This was originally published in the July 2018 newsletter of Editors Victoria.





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