Here's a common design workflow problem, probably most relevant to in-house designers, but also to agencies who have a lot of non-design writing or research staff, or freelancers who work with in-house writers. Many designers encounter it and have a way of dealing with it: I'm interested in what our collective design experience can come up with for the best way to deal with it.

Here's the problem:

  • I'm making a text-and-images layout, and I need to send early drafts to writers for copy editing.
  • These writers don't have design software and never will: buying it in isn't an option. Assume they have MS Office, and that maybe one person in the office has Acrobat but they can't access it easily. (In my case, these people are writers and research experts, there are loads of them, and copy writing and editing for designs is a small portion of what they do)
  • The copy editing is somewhat dependant on the layout: the writers need to be able to see the flow of the page to see how each chunk fits in, and how much space they have for each chunk. I'm thinking of cases like infographics and diagrams with detailed labels where the text, imagery and layout go hand-in-hand, rather than cases like books or magazine layouts where we'd just say "give the designer between XXX and YYY words and trust them".
  • The layout at this stage doesn't need to be exact on their end, but they need to be able to get an idea of it. It doesn't matter if what they send back to me is a bit of a mess visually, I'll just be extracting and using their editted text

So, what are the best methods for giving people an editable rough approximation of a layout?

Any answer should ideally be better than my current method - which is to email around PDFs showing the rough layout alongside flat Word documents with the text, hoping that the writers will understand and respect the layout and understand how much space they have... They rarely do... and since copy writing and editing for designs is a small portion of what they do, this is not likely to change.

Ideally, it should be less clunky and time-consuming than creating a separate PDF form and re-creating every text box as an input element to create a sort-of editable PDF, or, re-creating an approximation of the layout by hand in something like Word.

I'll accept answers starting with any common design software. In my case it's mostly Illustrator, but tricks that work starting with designs in InDesign, Photoshop, Corel, Inkcape etc are all relevant.


8 Answers 8


I've been doing my own research and found an option that seems to work okay. It gives the writer an imperfect but near-accurate version of the layout to work in, and takes almost no time away from real work to produce it.

It's based on turning a PDF into a Word doc... the very idea of which makes me feel unclean... but it seems to work, and the copywriter I used as an experimental guinea pig said he found it easier to work to set layouts this way.

  • Source a program that does a half-way decent job of turning PDFs into Word documents. Nitro PDF Pro is surprisingly okay/non-awful so far, and there's a free online version if you don't mind waiting 20 minutes and trusting your work with a remote 3rd party service. I've also seen a recommendation for this other free online tool but have not tried it
  • Save / export as a PDF, use said tool to convert it
  • (optional) Wash your hands and face, and ask for forgiveness from the Design Gods
  • (optional) Add track changes, notes and some ugly yellow Word highlighting to key bits needing particular attention, to remind everyone involved (including yourself) that it isn't supposed to look good, it's a Word document... and that those bits where text is getting randomly clipped are okay for this, really, they are okay...
  • Send it to the copy writers or editors with clear instructions
  • Copy their edits back into the real design program, and cast that word doc - which is by now probably grotesquely deformed - into the abyss, never to be spoken of again. It has fulfilled its purpose.
  • 1
    I would +2 this if I could for the hilarious internal dialogue which I have also had, nearly verbatim. :D Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 18:48
  • Surely, this is better than say what I had: keeping text in a word document and an indd file sync so proofreaders could keep working on the word document, but it still means that you have to go through all the changes in word and manually copy them to indd. What we really need is like a small free standalone app that allows to take an indd document, and just allows some text editing which would spew out another indd doc that you could then "merge" in indesign seeing all the changes and somehow resolve them.
    – user16454
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:49

What you need is an InCopy with InDesign workflow. InCopy does exactly what you require (and is made for exactly this task). There is nothing else out there, frankly, that doesn't involve klugy workarounds.

With InCopy, your copy editors and writers work with the exact layout, they can see exactly how the copy flows and where it will overset, but they can't change the layout or mess up the design. It's not a steep learning curve for an experienced copywriter. You also have exact Paragraph Styles they can work with, so you're never in doubt as to what will end up in the layout. Anne-Marie Concepcion, who is one of the best in the business on this subject, has tons of information here and on lynda.com. There's an excellent white paper here.

  • 4
    Oooh... +1 and I really want to accept this because, as you say, it's designed for the exact problem I describe. But it feels like, certainly in my case, Adobe's licensing rules have lost them a sale... In my organisation, there are 30+ people who might edit copy for me maybe 1-10 times a year. Buying InCopy for them all wouldn't work. Likewise if I was a freelancer, I couldn't imagine demanding that every 1st-time client buys a copy. Maybe there's a way to make it work... I'll look at the small print. But it feels like... Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 23:07
  • 1
    ...this is only an option when an organisation has a fixed workflow with a fixed number of writers and editors who always work with the same designers (e.g. an ad agency or publishing house). With the seemingly inflexible licences Adobe offer for this product, I don't see any way it could work in another type of organisation - even though it could easily work if this was, say, a cloud service, a hot licence as part of CS5 or a 'freemium' product like Reader & Acrobat with a free basic Word plugin and an advanced full version with more features. I'd love to be proved wrong though. Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 23:13
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    Tune in to the CS6 announcement tomorrow. Flexibility like this -- add a few seats for a month or two, drop them after -- is one of the things the Creative Cloud is all about, and is probably the major thing that has small design shops excited about it. Don't know any reason InCopy would not be included. Commented Apr 23, 2012 at 5:46
  • It looks like InCopy wasn't included in CCloud, and it's not in any CS6 suite. Can't see a subscribe option either. Strangely, CCloud and CS6 are listed in the side bar next to InCopy, as if InCopy was included, but InCopy's not in the buying guide and InCopy's FAQ says "Is InCopy CS6 in [CS6]...? No. InCopy is available only as a standalone product and is not included in any of the Creative Suite editions". AFAICT, Creative Cloud is one download of each application for one designer with one subscription, and InCopy is for non-designers, so is intended to be sold seperately. Commented May 8, 2012 at 12:14
  • 1
    I've already nagged the Adobe folks on this one. As cheap as it is, InCopy seems like a no-brainer for the Cloud. Meanwhile, I've been looking, and it would be well worth checking out emSoftware's DocsFlow and TypeFi. Both systems are built for an editor/InDesign workflow. Either might be just what you're looking for. Commented May 26, 2012 at 1:22

I work in the publishing industry for 15 years and this is a challenge indeed. My conclusion is the workflow must change; so far there's no perfect solution to that issue. If the editor saves time, you don't. If you save time, he doesn't ;)

Most editors don't have an Adobe subscription. In this case, forget about InCopy and especially forget about giving your editable files.

Saving a PDF as text will force you to re-insert all the revised text back into Indesign. If you're alright with this, it can work for you. It's ok for a flyer, but that's another story for books. I also discovered I get better flowing sentences when exporting from PDF to XML/HTML than .doc. Converting to Word from PDF can sometimes break your all the sentences and creates "false" hyphenations.

In any case, big editing should always be done BEFORE the layout. For proofreading, it's different because the revisions are usually small and there's no big editing required. A responsible (or aware) client will first pay a real editor to review the text structure, verify sources, separate chapters & paragraphs, etc. Then a proofreader will be paid to have another look at the file and focus on grammar. These 2 jobs are totally different even though a lot of proofreaders love to call themselves editors. Then finally, a final text is given to the designer, a proof will be produced, sent to the proofreader and minor adjustments will be made. Until the proof is fully approved. That's the real workflow for this and by far the most efficient for everybody and the most economical in time and money. Maybe you simply cannot do it this way though.

Indesign with a linked text/Word file

Unless you imported your Word file into Indesign as a link, that Word file will not update the text within Indesign even if it's modified. But it's possible to link a Word file the same way you link an image in Indesign, and when the Word file gets updated, the Indesign text will also get updated. It doesn't work the other way around though; changing the text in Indesign will not update the Word file!

So that's still an option if the editor only need to do proofreading and basic editing. Not very good for real editing (eg. changing a whole sentence to something else, adding sentences, etc.) It's another kind of workflow that has some limits, for example you might need to adjust the Indesign file after an update if you had a lot of graphical elements mixed with the text. That solution is better for reports, novels, technical sheets, etc.

Without seeing your layout, it seems to be the closest you can get to "[editors] can edit within the layout, or at least, within an approximation of that layout."

The editor can see an approximation of the design since you can match your stylesheets from Word with Indesign. So even when they update some text style in Word, it will update in Indesign too (if you want). I think you could always add the images in the word file but force InDesign to ignore them; adding the images in Word would only serve as a reference for the editors/proofreaders.

Adobe Acrobat Comments

That's the way I found the most flexible, versatile and efficient so far. Anyone can use Acrobatto add comments, it leaves a track of the changes, it's easy to follow, there's even checkboxes to mark revisions that have been done or not, etc.

It doesn't destroy your layout but you need to update each revision one by one in Indesign or the software you used for the layout...! So yes, that option can be a bit depressing when you didn't get a final text and you receive a PDF with 150 comments.

See more details here:

How to add hidden notes to developers within designs mockups?


There's plugins available for this. Unfortunately I cannot recommend any as I never fully tested them on Indesign or Adobe products. But you can always investigate this.

  • 150 comments? Pah! Even our final-stage proofreading PDFs (after copy editing is long since finished and we've already proofread the whole thing three times) routinely have an average of five comments/corrections per page… Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 16:29

I just accidentally stumbled over this today doing something completely different, and had to go back and try it out, and it looks like it may actually work. I have only done it with a single .ai artboard so far; I haven't tried multiple pages.

  • Save .ai file as a pdf. (I have .ai 5.5)
  • Open the pdf in Adobe Acrobat Pro (I have 10.1.15)
  • Save As: Microsoft Word. It took about a minute to transform into a Word doc, and the Word file was about 7MB, but it kept it's layout and type maleability perfectly, so if your copywriter wanted to change the text or layout slightly it looks like it would work.

I've been looking for this functionality for years! Is this a new function? I had never seen it before, but it looks like it works! (I'm still in disbelief). Has this been around forever and I've just been living under a rock? Quite possible.

  • Well, Acrobat pro is commercial and was not named in the question. You saw the answer of user568458 with an free program to convert pdf to word?
    – Mensch
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 5:08
  • This sounds promising, I didn't know Acrobat could do that either! The free conversion program is a bit ropey, maybe this is better Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 7:51

It doesn't matter if what they send back to me is a bit of a mess visually, I'll just be extracting and using their edited text

If you don't need them to present you with a clean layout, then I actually think your current solution is the best one, with a bit of tweaking.

Mark up the layout (in the layout program) with the problem spots. Put a big red box around the overset text, or color it magenta, or whatever. Say something in the email like, "you see the highlighted section? I need you to cut about 20 words from that. Please edit the Word document accordingly."

Export a regular PDF with the rough layout, and attach a Word document. Then the writer edits the Word document, which you re-lay, and from there you can fine-tune.

Maybe the problematic part of the process is that you're not giving the writers clear direction about what needs to occur for you to solve the layout issue.

  • That's good for when there is a specific layout problem, but I'm looking something more general. Maybe my organisation is unusual but for us there is always to-ing and fro-ing between the designer (me) and writers, fact-checkers, researchers and other stakeholders as the copy and design evolve in parallel. It's rarely "here's a specific problem, please solve it", it's usually "here's the latest version, please check the text, get the text signed off and, where appropriate, edit it within this layout". The text could be dummy, could be early draft, could be near-final needing sign-off. Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 16:09
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    This is really the correct answer. Providing the layout is really an invitation for them to collaborate on something that is outside their skillset. Give them a clear indication of what is needed, but a read-only layout should only be given if it is needed to illustrate some specific problem that they need to see. "Cut 2 lines (20-25 words)" is all they really need to know.
    – horatio
    Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 16:08

Have you tried an online proofing tool like ProofHQ? It allows you to share over 100 media types and those reviewers/commenters don't need the original app it was created in loaded. so, internal or external folks who need to contribute, can, without being a designer themselves.


In case anyone is still trying to solve this problem, go to adobe acrobat professional and export to PPT. Works wonderfully!

  • 1
    Hey Lisa, welcome to GD.SE! If you have any questions about how the site works, have a look at the help center or feel free to ping one of us in Graphic Design Chat once your reputation reaches 20. Keep contributing and enjoy the site!
    – Vicki
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 21:03

If you've got the copy already, can't you copy / paste it into the document and then export a pdf? That's what I usually do. Changes to copy can me made fairly quickly within Illustrator / InDesign / etc., and seeing the actual copy in situ is often helpful if I'm trying to make a point like "we need to trim the amount of copy down" or "this list of items should really be presented in such and such a way".

If I'm just dealing with the layout (or don't have copy yet) I still like Lorem Ipsum. True, you have to explain what "that Latin stuff" is from time to time, but it's still a very effective method of showing text flow, etc. I still send a .pdf file since it's a de facto standard and doesn't require a financial layout for the reader (for the record, you can also open Illustrator files in Acrobat Reader).

If you've got a client who has a computer but refuses to install a .pdf reader in this day and age it seems a little odd - for straightforward review of documents it's the easiest and cheapest method of sharing (and was in fact invented for this very reason). It puts me in mind of a client I was doing web layout for that, up until a couple of months ago, insisted on viewing all of the pages using IE6. Perhaps you could suggest that they install Acrobat Reader (or their preferred free .pdf reader) as a method of "streamlining the review process" (or some other politically correct euphemism). They may also be able to view the file directly in a web browser without having to install a .pdf reader (your results may vary depending on browser and version).

  • I think you've misunderstood the question: the problem is giving the copy editor a layout with copy (dummy or draft) that they can edit within the layout, or at least, within an approximation of that layout. Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 14:50
  • I've changed the title of the question to be clearer. Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 14:53

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