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Marking up and signing documents without printing them

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Portable Document Format (PDF) files have been around since the early 1990’s, when Adobe had the fantastic idea of creating a standard document format that would allow people to share documents in an ‘as printed’ format that would look the same on every device.

The PDF file format was an elegant solution to a widespread problem. Prior to PDF files, sharing documents was a nightmare. Even users of different versions of Microsoft Word for Windows would find that formatting would go out of whack when they opened a document saved by the other.

PDF files support inline images as well as text formatting, which also made it the perfect format for scanned images. Most scanners will now scan to PDF format by default.

This has made PDF files the defacto standard for sharing documents, particularly documents that one party needs to other to sign.

The problem is that most people don’t realise that PDF files are editable, so often we print PDF files out simply so we can sign them, scan them back in again and throw away the hard copy.

In this article I’ll present some handy tips for allowing you to mark-up and sign PDF files electronically without printing them.

Editing PDF Files

In this article we look at the features of the free Adobe Acrobat Reader that allow you to annotate and sign PDF files. There are plenty of other free PDF ‘readers’ that let you mark-up PDF files – just google ‘Edit PDF files’ if you want an alternative to Acrobat.

These free products don’t allow you to change the contents of the PDF file itself – mark-ups are typically added to the file as text boxes, etc.

Paid products such as Adobe Acrobat Pro (which is not free), allow you to edit and change the contents of the PDF file itself. For example, they allow you to delete and replace text within the file, etc. It is a common misconception that all PDF files are read-only, but they’re not. This is worth bearing in mind if you don’t fully trust the other party not to try and modify a PDF file surreptitiously.

Marking-up PDF Files

Access the markup tools in Acrobat via the ‘Fill & Sign’ or ‘Comment’ menus on the top right of the Acrobat window. Both menus give you options to insert text into your document, but the ‘Comment’ menu gives you a much richer range of options, including the ability to insert attachments, video, stamps and rich text into the document.

Create a signature

We don’t have space to look at each tool individually, but I’d definitely recommend creating a dummy PDF file and having a bit of a play – you’d be surprised at how powerful these tools are.

Here’s a snippet of my example PDF file prior to mark-up:

This document needs to be signed

Here’s the same file with markups added (all using Acrobat):


The mark-ups have not changed the underlying file itself. They are all saved with the PDF file and remain dynamic, so they can be modified or removed completely the next time the file is opened.

Inserting Signatures Into PDF Files

The ‘Fill & Sign’ tools in Acrobat allow you to add text annotations, checkboxes, initials and signatures to your PDF document.


When you choose ‘Place Signature’ for the first time Acrobat will provide options for creating/inserting old-fashioned squiggles or for inserting a digital certificate. The latter (which can be used in combination with a squiggle) is useful for avoiding forgery or repudiation.

Fill and sign tools

Have a play with these features and find out which option works best for you. The ‘webcam’ option is pretty cool – you sign a piece of paper, hold it up to your computer’s webcam and Acrobat digitises it for you. The ‘type my signature’ option also gives you several cursive fonts to choose from.

Once you’ve created a digital signature Acrobat will store it for you and allow you to simply place it into the document with the click of a mouse in future.


Just don’t forget to save your annotated PDF file before sending it to the other party. Bear in mind that they can modify or delete your annotations. To prevent them from doing so, try printing the file to PDF – this will create a new PDF file that has your changes integrated into the file itself.

Damian Funnell is a technologist and founder of Choice Technology, an IT services company, and, a cloud software company. His clients include a number of law firms.

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