Mark It Up! PDF Annotation Software

by | Jan 26, 2011

Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) has turned out to be a big winner when it comes to broad adoption across the web for a variety of uses. From print-ready files to full-color ebooks, PDFs are the lingua franca of the internet.

In book publishing, the first time we generate a PDF of a book is the first proof after the layout is complete. The proof goes out to a proofreader for checking, and often the author reads a copy as well.

Then the inevitable question comes up of how to make corrections, and how to transmit the corrections back to the book designer to be fixed in the book files.

Some people prefer to work on a print out of the page proof. This has to be mailed (or faxed if there aren’t too many changes) when finished, and that’s the way we’ve been doing it for years.

But it’s much more efficient to simply mark up the PDF itself and send a copy back as an email attachment.

The problem is, most people don’t own software that will annotate PDFs, that is, allow you to make notes or otherwise mark them up.

If you own Adobe’s Creative Suite, you’ll have a copy of Acrobat or Acrobat Pro. These are the premier tools for working with PDFs, and there are robust annotation tools available within the programs.

But what about everyone else? I went on a hunt on behalf of my clients, and here are some of the programs I found. If you know of others, please share them in the comments.

PDF Annotation for Windows

Note that these programs don’t edit the PDF files, but add objects to them. These objects, including notes and drawing objects, can then be read by other PDF-reading applications.

Foxit ReaderPDF annotation“Foxit PDF Reader is a small, fast, and feature rich PDF viewer for Microsoft Windows, which allows you to open, view, and print any PDF file.” And it’s a free download.

PDF-XChange ViewerPDF annotation“The PDF-XChange Viewer is smaller, faster and more feature rich than any other FREE PDF Reader/Viewer/Editor available.” Also a free download, with a sample of upgradeable features.

PDFillPDF annotationAlso includes form tools, drawing tools, and it’s only $19.99

Nitro PDF ProfessionalPDF annotationSticky notes, drawing tools, highlights, stamps and file attachments are some of the annotation tools offered by this program. $99.95

PDF AnnotatorPDF annotationNotes, drawings, and other annotation tools. $69.95

PDF Annotation on the Mac

If you own a Macintosh with System X, you already own a basic annotation tool: Preview. This utility, which comes with the system, is a display platform for many kinds of graphic files. But if you load a PDF file and go to Tools / Annotate you’ll see you can add notes, drawing objects, links and other objects to the file. They will be readable in Acrobat, too.

The Future

PDF looks like a format that will be with us for some time. It makes sense to get used to dealing with these files. Being able to mark up a 300-page book and send it with the speed of email is a great advance, in my opinion.

I’ve spent too much time and money shipping paper all over the country. Get one of these free annotation programs and spend a few minutes learning how to use it. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Let me know your experience with these programs, or if there are any good ones that should be included.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. M/R Johnson

    Joel, thanks for the great information

  2. Shiran


    I am a student, and all our lectures are put up online for us. I have a friend with an iPad and he has this app which allows him to make addition notes highlight etc. I would like that for my windows. I have no idea which of the ones listed are the best. Could anyone shed any light?

    I’m looking for something where, as the lecturer is talking about his work which are all on the PDF i can make additional notes.

    Many thanks,

  3. Clay Rivers

    Joel, I’ve been so focused on writing my manuscripts and hunting down a lit agent that I haven’t given thought to all that goes into correcting proofs and streamlining that process. Once again your tips are invaluable! Thank you!

  4. mike hou

    Thanks your sharing.
    For some reasons, I work on three platforms (and use Dropbox to sync files), each has its PDF annotation software: Skim on Mac, GoodReader on IPad, and PDF Xchange on Windows.
    The problem is, their annotations seem to be incompatible more or less. The annotations added by PDF XChange is not exactly the same view in GoodReader, and the annotations added by Skim are not even exist in GoodReader and PDF-XChange. Any idea?

  5. Theo

    Thanks again, Joel.
    I tested Foxitreader, PDF Xchange, and Adobe Reader X, and found out that those PDF files with the word SECURE on the very top of the wondow following “.pdf” do not allow me to do the highlighting or comment-adding.
    I have not tried the HIGHLIGHTER, for I could not install it. When I tried to install HIGHLIGHTER I followed the demo-video. The demo-video showed the PLUGINS but I could not find this PLUGINS-screen even after I had logged in my WP dashboard. So I cannot install the HIGHLIGHTER.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Theo, you may be dealing with a protected file that cannot be edited. You might be able to work on the file in Acrobat Pro, but if it is DRM-sealed, it is not meant to be copied or modified, and none of these software programs will work.

  6. Theo

    Thanks Joe.
    I am using PDF-XChange Viewer and can work on 1 .pdf file but cannot work on another .pdf. Why? Any other way to highlight or add comment to the .pdf I am reading?
    Anyone can help me?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Theo, I don’t use the program, but why don’t you try one of the other free ones?

  7. farhaan

    Is there are fee tool or cheap tool that works on MAC & PC.

    • Joel Friedlander

      farhaan, I don’t know about PC but Mac comes with Preview, which has basic annotation tools built into it. Also see Ann Marie’s comment farther up, where she points out that Adobe Reader, a free download, also comes with annotation tools and is available for both the Mac and Windows.

  8. Marla Markman

    Thanks Joel. I’m probably one of the reasons you were looking for a better solution to marking up the hard copy! But really, I’ve been meaning to look into PDF-editing software, so this is a good start.
    Thank you also, Ann-Marie. I have Reader X and have been wondering how to use the editing portion. I’ll take a look at this tutorial. So thank you for posting!

  9. Anne-Marie Concepcion

    The free Adobe Reader X, avail for Mac and Windows, lets the user add comments to *any* PDF, and save it. The only comment tools available out of the box are the sticky note and the highlighter, but for many people, that’s more than enough. (To get access to the full boat of commenting tools, the Acrobat user needs to save a copy of the PDF with Reader rights enabled, as mentioned previously.)

    I cover the new features of Reader X in the last chapter of my video tutorial on Acrobat X: (one of the videos in that chapter is free to view w/out a sub, don’t remember which though)


    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Annne-Marie, for the great tip. Although I’m a big fan of your InDesign tutorials on I haven’t had a chance to see the videos of other Adobe products.

  10. Fred Howell

    Another one is our site – – which lets you annotate pdfs in the browser. As it’s web based, you can have several people annotating and discussing the same copy online, which can reduce the number of editing cycles needed.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Fred, very interesting approach, I’ll have to dig into it a bit, thanks very much for the link.

  11. Kathy Carter

    Thanks for this useful info, Joel. I’ve been a Mac user forever, but I didn’t realize Preview had built-in annotation tools. I’ll definitely make use of them in the future.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thomas, that looks fascinating and I’m going to explore it more, thanks.

      To all commenters, if you know of other programs for this task, please let me know as I intend to revise the post to include all of these programs you’ve been so kind to point out to me. Thanks!

  12. Ed Eubanks

    Another great tool for the Mac, especially if Preview is a little on the thin side, feature-wise, is Skim. It’s free, robust, has great markup tools, and it’s lightning-fast.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ed, thanks, I’ve heard great things about Skim but haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

  13. Steve

    Hello, Joel.
    If you are creating PDFs from Acrobat Pro, you can enable commenting to your PDFs. (We’re using Acrobat Pro v. 7 for Mac. I’m assuming this feature is still available.) Enabling commenting allows anyone running a current copy of Acrobat Reader (free) to use a small set of markup tools. The marked up PDF file can be printed or saved to the PDF. Anyone with Acrobat reader can view and print the comments.

    The tools take a little time to figure out. I skip the comment balloons and use text boxes, the pencil tool, the line tool, and the arrow tool, as well as stamps to mark time completed. (It’s not as quick as pen to paper…but if you’re reading a lot of small type it is a lot easier on the eyes.)

    If you want to print your corrections, make sure to select “Document and Markups” from the Comments and Forms menu in the print dialogue box. Under page scaling, select “shrink to printable area” to ensure your corrections aren’t clipped at the printer’s margins.

    By the way, if you do much proofreading using PDFs, I’d suggest using a dual monitor setup. I use a 23″ display as my primary monitor and a 20″ as a secondary monitor.

    – Steve

    • Joel Friedlander

      Steve, great tip, thanks for that. In the current version (Acrobat v 9) you can use the “Extend Features in Acrobat Reader” command to achieve the same thing. Acrobat does note:

      Note: Once Reader Enabled, certain functions, such as editing document content or inserting and deleting pages, will be restricted.

      Although I have no idea how restrictive this is.

  14. maggie


    I’m assuming you have a screen large enough to display the marked up PDF and your ID document side-by-side. I work on a 17″ MacBookPro so when clients send me marked-up PDFs via email, I have to print them out. Luckily, this is usually 2nd and 3rd proof stages; we’ve already dealt with 1st proof the old-fashioned way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Maggie, I work on a 24″ iMac so I could put them up next to each other, but for some reason never do that. Instead, I hot-key back and forth between Acrobat and ID and find it quite fast that way. I know a lot of people work on laptops but I’ve never even tried to do a book that way, so kudos to you.

  15. Walt Shiel

    Thanks for tracking these down, Joel!

    We run into this problem frequently with our clients, usually ending up with a Word document list of corrections (with page, paragraph, line number noted).


    • Joel Friedlander

      Walt, I know of no task less appealing than looking up those page, paragraph and line citations just to find the comma or typo that needs fixing. How much faster, easier and more efficient it is to have a mark-up—either on paper or on screen—-to locate and identify the corrections that need to be made. That’s my hidden agenda behind trying to find free and low-cost solutions for my clients.

  16. Graham Storrs

    Jeez, Joel! I needed this last week. I did a search and found some appallingly bad free PDF editors that introduced more errors than I was annotating! In the end, I printed it, marked it up by hand, and posted it. Ah well, better late than never, eh? I’ll have a look at the ones you suggest and maybe next time proofing won’t be so very tedious.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sorry, Graham, must be a glitch in my editorial calendar, I’ll try to get that fixed.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the tip, Tom, I’ll have to check that out.



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