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John Deubert’s AcrobatiX: Secrets of Sticky Notes

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May PDF users love sticky notes, those little yellow speech bubbles we scatter throughout a PDF document with comments, carps, and complaints about pages’ contents? PDF expert John Deubert uses them all the time, and it turns out they don’t have to be yellow and they don’t need to be speech bubbles. He shows us how to make our PDF sticky notes stand out.
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One of the great revelations I received when I started writing professionally was the incredible extent to which Acrobat annotations have changed the publishing biz. In today’s World of Authorship, all the writing, the editing, the raging (mostly over finding one’s favorite turn of phrase mysteriously edited out) are all done electronically; no tree is cut down and converted to paper until the very final production run. On behalf of trees everywhere: Hooray!

The final item the modern author receives before a book goes to press is a set of PDF files of the laid-out chapters. This is the author’s final chance to clarify, modify, and express outrage by attaching PDF annotations throughout the document (Figure 1). This stage involves the use of lots and lots of text edits, circles, arrows, and sticky notes.

Figure 1 In today’s Modern World, the process of writing and publishing a book no longer requires an acre of wood be converted to paper just for the proofs. It’s all done electronically, using PDF files and electronic commentary.

The result is that I’ve become quite an annotation enthusiast. And Acrobat gives us quite an assortment of different types of annotations I can use: text edits, circles, arrows, sounds, and many more. However, the annotation type that I use the most often is the longest-standing of the bunch: the simple, lowly sticky note. I love sticky notes and use them with abandon to plaster my priceless comments over the pages of review documents.

I also often tailor the appearance of my sticky notes; sometimes I change their color, sometimes I’ll use an icon other than the default speech bubble. Recently, a friend of mine expressed surprise that this was possible; I assume he’s not alone in his surprise, so let’s review what parts of a sticky note are under your control and how to change them.

Before We Start

There are a couple of annotation-related facts we should discuss before we move on to the “Make Your Sticky Notes Your Own” discussion.

Icons and Text Frames

First, let’s learn two terms we’ll be using continually. A sticky note (well, all the Acrobat annotations, really) has two visual pieces to it (Figure 2):

Figure 2 Every PDF annotation has an icon, marking a location on the page, and a pop-up, containing the comment’s text.

  • The icon is a small graphic that identifies the location of the annotation on the page. In the case of a sticky note, the default icon is a little speech bubble but, as we’ll see, there are other possibilities.
  • The pop-up is a small pop-up window that contains the text associated with the annotation.

Annotation Appearance

This article discusses how to control the appearance of your sticky notes. However, the exact appearance of all your annotations is determined by your PDF-viewing software. Figure 2 shows a basic sticky note as viewed in the Mac version of Acrobat X. Figure 3 shows the same sticky note as displayed in two other PDF viewers: the Windows version of Acrobat 9 and the Apple Preview application. The three programs all make reasonable interpretations of the sticky note, but they don’t look like each other.

Figure 3 The exact appearance of a sticky note (and all the other annotations) is determined by the PDF viewing application. Here we see Figure 2’s sticky note as it appears in the Windows version of Acrobat 9 (top) and in Apple’s Preview application.

So, just keep in mind that whatever we specify in our sticky notes properties, what we actually see on the page is up to the viewer application.

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