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How to Convert PDFs to Word Documents and Image Files

How to Convert PDFs to Word Documents and Image Files

The PDF (Portable Document Format) is the open standard, created by Adobe in the 1990s, for presenting documents so they look consistent across all platforms and software. DOC (or DOCX) is the format/file extension used mainly by Microsoft Office for its word processing documents. The two aren't anywhere near compatible.

The problem is that you can't open a DOC file with Adobe Reader (or any other free PDF reader like FoxIt and Sumatra). But in order to convert PDFs to Word format—which really just means editing a a PDF in Word—the related process is easy.

As of Word 2013 (released in 2012), Microsoft has offered a function called PDF Reflow. It does what you expect. In Word, you go to the File tab, select open, select any PDF File, and open it right up for editing, as if it was a Word DOCX file.

There are limitations, however. The PDF you open in Word will have all the content, but it probably won't look exactly right. That's because PDFs are "fixed"—while the data is there, the file doesn't store the relationship between the data (such as the position on the page). Word documents are all about exacting that placement.

Here's a list from Microsoft of exactly what may not convert just right:

  • Tables with cell spacing
  • Page colors and page borders
  • Tracked changes
  • Frames
  • Footnotes that span more than one page
  • Endnotes
  • Audio, video, and PDF active elements
  • PDF bookmarks
  • PDF tags
  • PDF comments
  • Font effects, like Glow or Shadow (in the Word file, the effects are represented by graphics)

When you open a PDF in Word, you'll get this warning:

Convert PDFs to Word - Warning

"Word will now convert your PDF to an editable Word document," it says. "This may take a while. The resulting Word document will be optimized to allow you to edit the text, so it might not look exactly like the original PDF, especially if the original file contained a lot of graphics."

That said, the graphics get pulled in; they are easily editable as well.

Saving a file from Word 2013 to PDF is as simple as doing a Save as from the File tab. You should check the boxes on the save dialog box that say "Open File After Publishing" to immediately view it.

Conversion also works in Word Online, found at Office Online. You open a PDF in Word Online and it's viewable, but click the "Edit in Word" link and you'll see this:

Convert PDFs to Word - File Conversion

That's followed by another warning about changes to the layout, etc. But the content will be there and editable, even if the look went wonky. Give it a try.

That's it, you're all set for using PDFs in Word. Unless you have an older version of Microsoft Word.

PDF Use With Older Versions of Word

You're out of luck trying to open a PDF directly in Word 2010 or earlier. You'll need to convert the file first.

The ways to do this are numerous. Sites like Nitro's Converter will easily do a one-at-a-time conversion in either direction and email you the result. Of course, Nitro would prefer to sell you some software, which is handy if you've got hundreds or thousands of PDFs that need conversion.

Others include: Word.net, which has similar features; doc2pdf, arguably the best looking site that converts PDFs to Word and back; PDFPro's option to convert up to three PDF files to Word a month; and PDF Converter, which also converts PDF to Excel, PowerPoint, or an image, or vice versa. In fact, you can email any attachment to pdf@freepdfconvert.com and get a PDF.

For desktop software—which is the fastest way to turn a PDF into a Word DOC—there is no lack of options. PDFMate or WPS Office's Converter are great options for Windows users. If you're on a Mac, there are Lighten or iPubsoft, but each only has a free trial, so they're not totally free.

Smallpdf sells a $99 Windows tool called Solid PDF Converter that does a lot more than just Word output, plus handles batch conversions and OCR to make scans into editable text; it also offers a $6 per month service to make unlimited conversions online.


Ultimately, however, Word makes a pretty terrible editor for PDF files. You're going to be much better off finding a full PDF editor, and you don't have to pay the big cost of getting Adobe Acrobat Pro DC.

FoxIt PhantomPDF, for example, is $109; Qoopa's PDF Studio Standard goes for $89; and CutePDF is just $49.95. They've all got free trials, so if you've got serious PDF editing in your future, give them a try before you settle for Word conversions.

Export a PDF to JPEG or other image format

If you need to convert a PDF into an image file, it's going to be a whole lot easier on a Mac than it would be with a PC. On a Mac, simply open the PDF in Preview. Use the File > Export menu and select the image format you want and the options you prefer, and you've got your image file.

On Windows, the best no-cost method is to open a free Adobe account and log in to https://cloud.acrobat.com/exportpdf. Drag a PDF into the window; from the Convert To: menu, select Image, then Image Format (JPEG, PNG, or TIFF), and use the slider to select the image quality. Multipage PDFs get converted into separate image files. You can then download a ZIP with the image files.

If you're bothered by privacy concerns and don't want to share your data with Adobe, then you can use many image editors to export PDF to image files. Our favorite is XnViewMP (www.xnview.com), free for personal and educational use. When you open a PDF in XnViewMP, you'll probably need to follow the prompts to install the open-source GhostScript app for working with PDF and PostScript files, but you can then use XnViewMP to export a PDF to any standard image format. Keep in mind that all fonts will be converted from scalable TrueType format into bitmap, and small text will look "block-y."

If you want fine-tuned export options, any commercial PDF editor can export to image files. We've used FineReader, Acrobat, and PDF-Xchange Editor with excellent results—including options to create small files suitable for display on the web, insert into documents, or use anywhere else where PDFs aren't supported or convenient.