The right way for anyone to convert PDF to text

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There are many ways to convert PDF to text, and some of those methods are just not going to give you the results you need. 

The easiest ways to convert PDF to text on Mac

Here, we'll show you the right ways to convert PDF to text, and highlight a few pdf to text converter apps we really like.


OCR PDF to text

Prizmo is a very powerful document scanning and PDF exporter for Mac. It excels when you need to convert scanned PDF to text on your desktop, but it's so much more than that!

Prizmo also converts PDFs to text using an advanced OCR, or optical character recognition. Its 'recognize' feature scans your PDFs for characters, which helps it know what should be converted to a text file, and what might be an image or formatting that can be omitted.

We like Prizmo because its PDF to text OCR is really clever, and omits formatting other converters may leave behind. In side-by-side testing, we've found it to produce better true text documents than many other services.

Here's how to use Prizmo to convert your PDF document to a text file:

  1. Open Prizmo. Select 'New File.'
  2. Choose 'Open Image File.'

Open PDF Image File

  1. Select the PDF file you want to convert to text from your computer.
  2. Select 'Recognize' from the top right corner of the screen.OCR PDF text in progress
  3. From the Menu bar, go to File > Export.
  4. From the drop-down menu, select 'Rich Text.'Export a recognized PDF to text file
  5. Select 'Export to File.'
  6. Name your new text file, and choose where you'd like to save it.

Convert pdf to searchable text 

If you've got huge PDFs you want to convert to text documents, there's a really good chance you'll want those new files to be as searchable as your PDF was. This is especially critical for wordy PDF files, as text documents lack formatting. Instead of visual cues to tell you where to look, you'll have a wall of text.

PDFPen is a great application focused on making PDFs editable, which is awesome when you need signatures on documents or for people to fill-in forms. But it's also a really powerful PDF to txt converter, and allows for batch converting if you need that functionality.

Here's how to convert a PDF to text with PDFPen:

  1. Open PDFPen, and select the document you want to convert. Select 'Open.'
  2. From the Menu bar, go to File > Export.
  3. Choose 'Rich Text' from the drop-down menu.Export rich text from PDF in PDFpen
  4. Select 'export,' and you're done!

That's really all it takes! Now you have a searchable text document from your PDF. Check out how to search a PDF.

Keep a few things in mind when using PDFPen to turn PDF documents into text files. It retains some formatting, which can be handy in certain cases. While there are times you will definitely want to strip out all of the formatting a PDF has, sometimes objects are actually necessary bits of info.

We converted a financial document boasting of zero-percent introductory rates for a credit card, and most text converters left out the actual '0' from the document because it was an object, not a character. PDFPen didn't have an issue, but did retain some formatting after converting the PDF to a text document, which may not be what you're looking for.

Convert Handwriting to Text

When we talk about converting PDF to text, we're most often discussing the OCR. While many OCR services intend to strip anything not immediately recognizable as a character out of the final product, MathKey does things a bit different.

The app makes itself really handy for those who prefer to handwrite, especially for mathematical purposes. It's built for recognizing mathematical equations, which is great for those who like to put pen to screen on an iPad with Apple Pencil to work out math problems.

Because it's focused on math, MathKey allows you to export scanned images as images, LaTex, or MathML.

 MathKey handwriting recognizer

MathKey also has a really handy method for linking your iPad or iPhone works to the Mac. In the mobile app, you can scan a QR code to link to the MathKey website. Once linked, you can then transfer your math problem sketches to your Mac, where you are able to convert your handwriting. After you convert it, you're able to export it as an image, LaTex, or MathML file, which can be used in any document you like.

It's great for those times you have to include some mathematical equations to a document, but don't feel like fussing with the Mac's keyboard workarounds for typing the equations out.

How to use Automator to convert pdfs to text - a native macOS solution

You can use Preview to save text files as PDFs, but not PDF to txt. Instead, Apple's built-in Automator is your go-to solution. Just keep in mind Automator is a 'pro' tool, so follow along closely so you don't mess anything up:

  1. Open Automator on your Mac.
  2. Select 'New Document.'
  3. Select 'Workflow' from the menu that appears.Automator Workflow
  4. From the menu on the left side, select 'Files and Folders.'
  5. On the sub-menu to the right of the main menu, find 'Ask for Finder items.' Drag that to the open space on the far right side of the window.
  6. Select 'PDFs' from the menu.
  7. Select 'Extract PDF text' from the sub-menu that appears. Drag it to the right side of the screen, under 'Ask for Finder items.'
  8. In 'Extract PDF text,' select 'rich text' as your output type. Your Automator screen should look like this:
  1. From the menu bar, select File > Save.
  2. Enter the name of your new app.
  3. Choose where you want to save your app.
  4. Select 'Application' as the file format. (The default is 'workflow.)Save as an application

That's all you have to do set your new Automator app up. Now, let's run it and extract text from PDF:

  1. Double-click your app.
  2. Choose the PDF file you want to convert, and select 'Choose' on the bottom right of the window.

Convert PDF to text via Automator app

Now your PDF has been converted to a text document, and saved to your desktop. All you have to do is open it up and your PDF is readable as a text document!

A few things to note. First, your PDF will not be destroyed or altered in any way. This Automator app only extracts text from the PDF and saves that text as a new file.

Because the app will only convert PDF to txt, no images will be converted.  

How to convert text in PDF in Adobe Acrobat

You can use OCR with Adobe Acrobat, though there are some things to keep in mind. Acrobat is a professional tool, and can be really difficult for first-timers or novices. Because it was designed of professionals, those who don't need a powerful PDF viewer will likely find Adobe Acrobat far too fussy for most use cases.

And remember while we're discussing a finite use-case in converting PDFs to text documents, that doesn't mean it has to be difficult. This is why we suggest Prizmo, PDFPen, and MathKey. Chances are one of those apps suit your needs far better than Adobe Acrobat.

But if you want to use Adobe Acrobat's OCR functionality, here's how:

  1. Open a PDF file within Acrobat.
  2. Select 'Tools' in the top right corner of the window.
  3. Select 'Recognize text.'
  4. Select 'In this file.'
  5. On the next screen, choose how many pages in your document you'd like scanned. You can also make edits to the language or output preferences by clicking 'edit.'

That's really all it takes to scan the document, but it's a lot more granular than other apps.

This also doesn't export your document, so keep that in mind. All you've done with Adobe Acrobat is make your PDF searchable, and each character recognizable.

What about OCR PDFs online?

There are several unique online services for scanning PDFs using an OCR online feature. Their capabilities are similar – all scan your PDFs and turn them into text documents using an optical character recognition service, but there are things to consider.

First, you're using a cloud-based service, and there's no way to know what's happening behind the scenes. While we don't doubt most are simply converting PDFs to text as a service, we do wonder why they offer it free of charge. It may be to train a machine learning algorithm using what amounts to crowdsourced data, or they could be saving copies of your PDFs or text files for some purpose.

Online services are sometimes a front for capturing your email address for marketing purposes. They may also have a model where your first scan is free, and subsequent scans cost money, or you have to subscribe to some service. Many might do so just to get some scans done, but if you forget about your subscription, the cost adds up over time.

Simply put, we prefer using native apps to get the job done.


Converting a PDF to a text file is one of those use-cases where your needs are unique enough that it can be difficult to find a solution, but urgent enough that you need a solution quickly.

It's difficult to recommend Adobe Acrobat. While it's robust, it's usually overkill for most of us. Adobe thrives in legacy enterprise settings where companies need the power Acrobat provides.

Automator is handy, and provided good results. It held onto too much formatting for our liking, and rendered some text in colors. Text documents opened in the TextEdit app on the Mac, and it was difficult to read much of the text Automator provided. We wanted clear, concise, accurate text from a PDF that was readable, and search-able.

That's what Prizmo and PDFPen excel at. We like both because they make accomplishing your tasks easy. Each are strong in their respective ways; Prizmo ha a much stricter OCR engine, while PDFPen captures more of the page info. We ran some side-by-side testing of three documents, and discovered this to be true across all PDF documents we used.

There's no recommendation, and we think both are easy enough to use it doesn't warrant a decision to be rendered. If one doesn't work, the other app can fulfill your needs quickly and easily.

Best of all, Prizmo, PDFPen, and MathKey are all available for free as part of a free trial of Setapp, the most well-rounded suite of productivity apps for Mac. 

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