Commenting on PDF Comments

If your response to the question ‘How do you use Acrobat comments?’ is a mumbled ‘No comment,’ then listen up. Comments and annotations are some of the most powerful ways in which Acrobat can streamline your creative workflow. Here are some tips.

I have a love-hate relationship with Adobe Acrobat’s commenting capabilities. Adobe likes to tout electronic commenting as a huge time-saver that makes the review process significantly more efficient. To be sure, electronic commenting does speed things up.

But as a writer who is typically on the receiving end of marked-up Adobe PDF files, it seems like Acrobat’s electronic commenting tools are a little too easy to use. Sorting through a document rife with redlines, highlighted text, edits that appear when you roll the mouse cursor over an annotation, and associated notes that pop up all over the screen can make my head swim and make me yearn for the for the good old days of colored pencils and static sticky notes. Happily, however, I got some good advice from a panelist at a Seybold San Francisco session that I moderated recently about how to manage not only Acrobat annotations and comments but also the people who use them.

Today’s Commentary

The session, part of the conference track, was titled ‘Collaborate and Print: Acrobat for Creative Professionals.’ Most of the audience — and probably most of you readers — know all about the benefits of generating Adobe PDF files for final prepress: they’re compact, composite files, complete with fonts and graphics that RIP smoothly. In fact, I bet many of you send out PDF files routinely. And many of you probably also e-mail Adobe PDF proofs to clients. But tell me this: How many of you use Acrobat’s commenting tools? Aha. I thought so. Same with the audience last month: Not so much.

Acrobat comments can be used when documents or designs are reviewed by clients, legal departments, or in many other types of proofing situations. When I write or edit books for Peachpit Press, for example, chapters are layed out by a compositor and then sent as Adobe PDF to tech reviewers and other editors, who mark up the document with changes for the author and compositor to make. It’s a fast way to circulate proofs and invite commentary — not to mention that all-digital delivery saves trees.

Acrobat offers a host of hard-core, intuitive commenting tools. You can highlight text, strikethrough it, add an associated sticky note to make a comment. You can attach a file-such as a Word document-so that if the required edits are extensive, the lucky soul who gets to make the changes can copy them right out of an electronic document and not type them in manually. (Acrobat 6 Standard and Professional now also export comments to Word XP to further reduce retyping, but I haven’t used it so I can’t say how well it works.)

Adobe also made it much easier to print comments in Acrobat 6.0. You could print comments in Acrobat 5.x by jumping through hoops in the Preferences and Print dialog boxes, but now you just choose File > Print with Comments, make some choices about content and appearance, and click OK. That’s nice. There’s also a new Review Tracker that lets you, among other things, see who’s late providing feedback so that you can send them a gentle e-mail reminder. This is another feature I haven’t used, as I’m not generally initiating reviews, but as the person who’s always waiting for ‘just one more’ set of comments to come back to me, I love the concept and hope my clients use it the future.

So you can see, the tools are all there. The technology works — in theory. The tricky part is getting people to use it well in practice.

Constant Comment

Paul Bunyar, a senior production artist for American Century Investments who spoke at my Seybold session, has done just that. Bunyar, whose department produces such documents as mutual fund prospectuses and benefits guides, has trained his internal clients how to use Acrobat’s commenting tools. That means he not only showed his clients where to find the comment tools but also gave them rules about how to use them appropriately and consistently, which makes it easier for him to do his job of entering changes.

Ah, what a concept.

Some rules are common sense but need to be articulated nonetheless. For example, don’t highlight text and write in an associated sticky note, ‘Delete this!’ Just use the strikethrough tool; that’s faster for everyone. But many rules will depend on the company and on the individual who has to make the changes — and that person should absolutely be involved in the rule-making process. In Bunyar’s case, he has instructed his reviewers, among other things, to not use quotation marks around text that needs to be inserted (unless he’s supposed to type in the actual quotation marks) and to not use ellipses in sticky notes as a short-cut to referring to text on the page (instead, the relevant text should be appropriately highlighted or annotated).

Here are some other potentially useful instructions for reviewers:

  • Don’t add comments or suggested rewrites in a sticky note that’s associated with deleted text. If text needs to be rewritten, use the Replace Selected Text tool.
  • Text marked with a strike-through should be deleted, period.
  • Reviewers should use the highlight tool (with an associated sticky note) and the regular Note tool consistently and not interchangeably: Use the highlight tool to select specific text to request a specific change.
  • Reviewers shouldn’t click randomly in a paragraph with the Note tool, make suggested rewrites, and expect someone else to figure out where the changes go.
  • Notes are more appropriate to communicate larger issues, such as those that affect a page or section of a document-and if they can always be placed in the same location on the page-say, at the top-they’re all the easier to find and read.

To use comments most effectively, use the appropriate markup tool and avoid extraneous notes.

Don’t litter text with highlights and require the document author to open notes to understand your edits.

Keep your Comments to Yourself

But perhaps the biggest problem with electronic reviews is that reviewers tend to get carried away. After all, electronic sticky notes are free, not $5 per pack, and in my experience reviewers they use them liberally but not always wisely.

A rule of thumb: Don’t write anything in a note that doesn’t need to be addressed or changed. And a corollary: Use the imperative. For example:

  • Bad comment: ‘Is that graphic supposed to look like that?’ Good comment: ‘Make sure this graphic uses the appropriate corporate colors.’
  • Bad comment: ‘I agree with that other reviewer.’ Good comment: no comment at all.

It all boils down to keeping it simple. Use the right tool for the task. Remember that less is more. Provide clear instructions on what to change, and don’t clutter the page with unnecessary banter.

And while my friend Paul Bunyar might respectfully disagree (because they’re six letters that aren’t actually to be typed onto the page), in my mind, it never hurts to say ‘please.’

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About the Author: Anita Dennis

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