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How to Extract Text from a PDF Using Your Mac's Free Built-In Tools

Posted by Melissa Holt on June 28, 2017

The Portable Document Format (PDF) is a great way to share documents while preserving formatting, layout, and even security. But sometimes you need to copy some text from a PDF, and leave all of the document’s images and formatting behind. This can be particularly challenging when the text you want is split and divided by images.
So how do you copy just the text from a PDF, while ignoring the images and formatting? Well, the Mac’s TextEdit app is here to help!

Step 1: Open the PDF File

The first step is to open your PDF file. The default application for viewing PDFs in macOS is the Preview app, and that’s what you’ll see in the following screenshots. If you have a third party PDF application, such as Adobe Acrobat, the steps are similar.

mac pdf file preview

This is the most awesome demo file EVER.

Step 2: Select Everything in the PDF

Normally when you need to select text from a PDF that has a lot of images and formatting, you’d probably use your mouse or trackpad cursor to select each block of text, copy it out to the clipboard, and then paste it into your desired application. And if you need just a little bit of text, this method is fine. But if you need multiple pages of text, this can take forever. The answer is to just select it all, and we’ll show you how to deal with the images and formatting next.
So, select all of the content in your PDF by heading to Edit > Select All or by using the keyboard shortcut Command-A.
pdf select all
Once you do so, you’ll see the entire contents of your document selected.
pdf file selected all

Step 3: Copy and Paste the PDF Contents

With the contents of your PDF selected, head to Edit > Copy in the menu bar or use the keyboard shortcut Command-C. Next, find and launch the TextEdit app, which is located by default in your Applications folder. You can also search for it via Spotlight.
textedit mac app
Depending on your TextEdit settings, you may need to create a new document when launching the app. Click the New Document button in the lower-left corner of the window to do so.
textedit new document
By default, your new TextEdit document will open in Rich Text mode. You’ll need to change it to Plain Text Mode, as this is the secret that lets us paste the entire PDF but only see the text. To switch to Plain Text Mode, select Format > Make Plain Text, or use the keyboard shortcut Shift-Command-T.
textedit plain text
If you see Make Rich Text in this window on your own Mac, then that means your TextEdit document is already in Plain Text Mode.
Finally, copy the contents of your PDF by selecting Edit > Paste from the menu bar or using the keyboard shortcut Command-V. Because we’re in Plain Text Mode, you’ll see just the text from your PDF, and not any of the images or formatting.
text edit paste plain text
Your text may still need to be cleaned up a bit in terms of spacing, but it should be much easier to deal with in whatever application it’s destined for.

Bonus: Force All TextEdit Documents to Open in Plain Text Mode

If you’ll be doing this PDF copy-paste routine often, you can set TextEdit to open in Plain Text Mode by default, which can save you a little bit of time. To do so, select TextEdit > Preferences from the menu bar.
TextEdit Preferences
From the Preferences window, select the New Document tab and choose Plain Text under the “Format” section.
textedit new document plain text
As mentioned, this can save you some time, but you can always switch individual TextEdit documents back to Rich Text Mode by using the method described earlier. So you’re not stuck with one or the other, but just be aware that if you switch a Rich Text document to Plain Text and then switch back to Rich Text, you will have lost all formatting in the process.

One thought on “How to Extract Text from a PDF Using Your Mac's Free Built-In Tools”

bobdeloyd says:
This is going to help me get my ebook I wrote out of a PDF I had to used to send it to the Printers when I published it, but somehow lost the MS Word .Doc
Thank you 🙂
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