Portable Document Format
A guide for students

Why turn in assignments in PDF?

There are many reasons why it is convenient to turn in your papers electronically rather than on paper. Quite apart from saving trees, this means you can turn in papers from anywhere and anytime. On my end I receive your work instantly, with all its pages intact, and with a timestamp that makes clear that you have completed your work on time. I also automatically have a copy of your paper for future reference (end-of-term comments, recommendation letters, etc.). And we can both keep backup copies of your work on our own machines or on other servers, where it won’t be lost even if both your computer and mine die.

Many students first think of turning in their electronic papers in the format they produce them in: this is usually some version of Word (.doc or .docx), or sometimes an alternative word processor (Google Docs, WordPerfect, Pages, OpenOffice), or occasionally the RTF interchange format (actually also created by Microsoft, but used by Apple’s TextEdit as well).

These many formats create problems. If I don’t have the program to read your document myself, I have to convert it. Worse yet, if I can’t convert your document on my computer, I have to go find a computer with the appropriate program. This makes me crabby. You don’t want me crabby while I evaluate your work. Microsoft Word is particularly liable to produce this problem, since there are many versions of its software and Microsoft is constantly changing how they work. The company is particularly badly behaved when it comes to file formats: every version of Word produces differently formatted documents (including Mac and Windows versions of the “same” program), and there is no guarantee that one version of Word will understand the output of another version perfectly.

Eventually I will crack your word-processor-format file—but the results are not completely reliable. So you have no guarantee that the carefully laid-out paper in a lovely font that you have produced corresponds to what I see on my screen or print out on paper. In particular, if you use a font I don’t have, chances are good the results of conversion will be unattractive. And if you have accented or other special characters, there is a chance they will come out as garbage if there are problems with character encoding. (Use UTF-8 encoding if you know how.)

Portable Document Format is the solution to these problems. A PDF file specifies typography and layout quite precisely: you can assume that any modern computer will display and print a PDF file in the same way, with the same fonts, lineation, page breaks, layout, and so on. The PDF “embeds” the fonts you use, so there is no question of what you type appearing as something else on another computer. As a bonus, most PDF readers not only display PDFs but allow anyone to annotate them: and these annotations, too, will translate smoothly from platform to platform. Contrast this with the chancy business of trying to annotate documents with Word’s commenting or Track Changes functions: that is best attempted only if the other person is using the same version of Word. With PDF commenting, by contrast, my comments on your work are archived electronically in a reliable way.

Reading annotated PDFs from your instructor

If you submit a PDF file of your paper, I will probably return my comments to you in the same format. In particular I will add marginal comments to the paper itself. These will normally appear as little “speech bubbles” in the margin. In some PDF viewers (e.g. Mac OS Preview) the associated comment will appear in the margin of the PDF window. But in Acrobat’s Adobe Reader or other readers you may have to find a “Comment” tab or a “View Comments” or “View Annotations” menu item (under Tools or View, depending on the program) in order to see a list of comments which you can scroll through. And though most browsers have plugins to display PDF files, few browsers show annotations.

Producing PDF files

All you need to know, then, is how to get your word-processed documents into PDF. You cannot do this simply by changing the file extension from .doc or .docx to .pdf. That will only confuse me and my system. The conversion process is normally very easy, but it depends on your operating system and on your word processor of choice.


MacOS X “speaks” PDF natively: any program that lets you print also lets you save PDFs. Choose “Print…” from the File menu, click the “PDF” menu button at the lower lift, and choose “Save As PDF…” from the menu.

Certain programs also have their own specific PDF export functions. For example, Apple’s Pages has an “Export…” menu item (again under the File menu). Microsoft Word has a PDF option among the format choices in the “Save As…” dialog (File menu). For the purpose of turning in papers electronically, one can normally use either the “Save As PDF…” option from the Print dialog or a program-specific PDF export with equal success.


Word 2010 and more recent versions know how to create PDFs; choose “Save As” from the File menu, and select PDF from the pulldown menu of types. See these PDF exporting instructions from Microsoft for all Office 2010 programs.

If you have Word 2007, you can install an Add-In from Microsoft called Save as PDF or XPS. This plug-in adds a “Save as PDF” item to your File menu.

Google Docs

On all platforms, Google Docs (now Google Drive) has a PDF creation option through its “Download as…” command on its file menu.

Advanced usage note: Embedding Fonts

Rather exhaustingly, even the “portability” of PDF is not completely guaranteed by all programs that make PDFs. Sometimes a PDF will not carry all the font information it needs to look on my system exactly as it does on yours. To avert this, the hyper-scrupulous PDF-creating student must learn to embed fonts in PDFs they export from their word processor. “Embedding fonts” is the process that ensures that the PDF contains information about your typefaces, even if I don’t have the same fonts on my system. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s programs do not always embed fonts as they should. Different versions of Word need to be treated differently. These instructions, prepared by Andrew McDonnell of Miami University of Ohio, explain how to embed fonts in PDFs in Word 2011 (Mac), Word 2010 (Windows), and Word 2007 (Windows). On a Mac, the Preview application’s “Export” command (File menu) also has an option to re-embed fonts in any PDF by choosing “Create Generic PDFX-3 Document” from the “Quartz Filter” pop-up menu.