Why some PDF’s won’t work in Word 2013

Why won’t Word 2013 convert some PDF’s?

Word 2013 lets you convert some PDF files into Word documents, but what about those it won’t convert to editable text? What’s going on?

First a quick primer on two types of PDF.


Image only

Some PDFs are just pictures of pages. The PDF treats each page as a single image regardless of the content. Image only PDF documents are often made when a document is converted with a scanner. Sometimes they are made deliberately to make it harder to copy the text. Word for Mac only makes ‘image only’ PDF’s.

Here’s an ‘image only’ document that can only select parts of the page as images. Even though it’s obviously text (to us humans) the PDF only ‘sees’ a page image.

http://img.office-watch.com/ow/PDFs%20and%20Word%202013%201.png image from Why some PDF’s won’t work in Word 2013 at Office-Watch.com

Windows 10 from people 'in the know'

A detailed and independent look at Windows 10, especially written for the many people who use Microsoft Office.

Fully up-to-date with coverage of the Anniversary 2016 major update of Windows 10.

This 670 page book shows you important features and details for all serious Windows 10 users.

If there’s NO separate text stream, Word 2013 has no text it can read. Word 2013 imports to a document with each PDF page as a full page image in Word but no editable text.


PDF with text stReam

This can look the same as an ‘image only’ PDF but hidden away is a text version of what’s on each page. PDF’s made from Word or other publishing programs (but not Word for Mac) usually have a text stream. Scanners with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software can make PDF’s with a text stream (with varying degrees of accuracy).

If there’s a text stream you can select text on the page, for example in Adobe Reader you can select text, right-click and choose various text options like Copy and Highlight.

http://img.office-watch.com/ow/PDFs%20and%20Word%202013%202.png image from Why some PDF’s won’t work in Word 2013 at Office-Watch.com

When Word 2013 opens a PDF it looks for that hidden text stream and uses it to make a Word version of teach PDF page. Since the text stream may not always match the displayed page there can be differences.

Nerd alert: yes, PDF structure is a lot more complicated that just two types, but the above is enough for our purposes here.

Now you know the difference, Converting ‘image only’ PDFs to Word explains how to still make a Word document from a PDF that Word 2013 can’t import properly.