How to make a PDF

There’s a right way and a wrong way to make a PDF. Based on an un­sci­en­tific sur­vey of the PDFs I’ve got­ten from law­yers, just about all of you are do­ing it the wrong way.

The wrong way: print the doc­u­ment on pa­per and scan it to PDF.

The right way: con­vert the doc­u­ment di­rectly to PDF.

Note Though al­most all the ma­te­r­ial in this web­site is iden­ti­cal to the sec­ond-edi­tion pa­per­back of Ty­pog­ra­phy for Lawyers, the tech­ni­cal ma­te­r­ial on this page has been up­dated to re­flect my best cur­rent recommendations.

How to convert directly to PDF

Win­dows (Of­fice apps)Click File and then Save As. From the file-type popup menu, se­lect PDF (*.pdf). Click Save. The file ex­ten­sion will au­to­mat­i­cally be changed to .pdf.

Win­dows (other apps)Is­sue the print com­mand. You’ll see the Print di­a­log box. At the top of this box is a popup menu list­ing the in­stalled print­ers. Se­lect the Microsoft Print to PDF dri­ver. Set other op­tions as needed and click OK.

Mac OSIs­sue the Print com­mand. The di­a­log box that ap­pears has a but­ton at the lower left la­beled PDF. Click this but­ton. From the menu that ap­pears, se­lect Save as PDF. In the next di­a­log box, en­ter a file­name and click Save.

“What’s the dif­fer­ence? Ei­ther way, you end up with a PDF.” True. But one PDF is much bet­ter than the other.

When you print a doc­u­ment and then scan it to PDF, you’re de­feat­ing most of the ben­e­fits of us­ing a PDF at all. Es­sen­tially, you’re mak­ing a se­ries of pho­tos of your doc­u­ment and pack­ag­ing them in­side a PDF. These pho­tos oc­cupy a lot of disk space, they’re slow to view or print, they have to go through OCR to be search­able, and any care you’ve put into ty­pog­ra­phy will be di­luted by the re­duced qual­ity of the scan.

But print­ing di­rectly to PDF stores your doc­u­ment in a com­pact, high-res­o­lu­tion for­mat. In­stead of a se­ries of pho­tos, the doc­u­ment pages are stored as highly com­pressed dig­i­tal data. These pages take up very lit­tle space on disk, are fast to view or print, are search­able with­out OCR, and pre­serve your ty­pog­ra­phy with per­fect fi­delity. 

“But my doc­u­ment has ex­hibits. How am I sup­posed to get those into the word-pro­cess­ing doc­u­ment?” You don’t. Print the word-pro­cess­ing doc­u­ment to PDF as de­scribed above. Then com­bine them into a sin­gle file us­ing Ac­ro­bat or an­other PDF-edit­ing tool.

Got it? Good.

by the way
  • Many law­yers who use Win­dows rely on the built-in PDF gen­er­a­tors in Word and Word­Per­fect. For an­cient and ar­bi­trary rea­sons, they only work with True­Type-for­mat fonts, not Open­Type. If you use pro­fes­sional fonts like those in font rec­om­men­da­tions (in­clud­ing mine), make sure you’ve in­stalled the True­Type ver­sions of the fonts (they have the .ttf suffix).

  • For a long time I rec­om­mended that law­yers who use Win­dows also use the PDF gen­er­a­tor that was in­cluded in the paid Adobe Ac­ro­bat soft­ware, be­cause it made the best PDFs. The qual­ity of Adobe’s PDF maker, un­for­tu­nately, has de­te­ri­o­rated over time. I still think Adobe Ac­ro­bat is a use­ful tool for any­one who has to file PDFs—e.g., as men­tioned above, for com­bin­ing a PDF brief with a set of PDF ex­hibits. But I don’t rec­om­mend gen­er­at­ing PDFs from your word proces­sor us­ing Adobe software.

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