Hazardous cleanup

Six-frame cartoon. Frame 1: Bespectacled editor and curly-haired editor are each holding a litter picker and a trash bag. The littler pickers have cursors at their tips. The editors are sweeping rolling hills of text, picking up stray commas and misplaced apostrophes. Frame 2: Bespectacled editor notices a "thorough" that should be "through" and reaches with her litter picker to pick up the O. Frame 3: As she does, the cursor at the tip turns into a hand. Curly-haired editor yells, "Look out!" Frame 5: All we see is a flash of light. Frame 6: The editors find themselves in a jagged, windswept valley. Bespectacled editor says, "Dammit—that was a link!"
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(See the mouseover text if you’re in this situation in a PDF and aren’t aware of the quick way to get back.)

A rant might not be the most auspicious way to start a new year, but the 2023 Acrobat interface change has effectively doubled the time it takes me to input my proofing markup, and I want to talk about it, dammit. The changes started rolling out in March 2023 but didn’t affect me till the fall.

I was debating whether my old brain is now just inflexible to change but have concluded that, no, Adobe has, in fact, created a worse user experience for those of us who use Acrobat as professional proofreaders.

If you’re not already familiar with the changes to Acrobat (including Acrobat Reader), check out Adrienne Montgomerie’s orientation video for a summary. (And see their PDF Markup Basics demo for an excellent primer on how proofreaders tend to use Acrobat’s tools.)

Some proofreaders might have a different workflow from mine—especially if they use stamps to mark up. My clients have expected me to use the built-in annotation and commenting tools, and in the new interface I’ve come across several points of friction that have contributed to my frustration.

1. I can no longer apply a tool after selecting text

In the old Acrobat, I could select text first and then look for the tool I wanted to apply to the selection. In the 2023 Acrobat, many tools are unavailable to me after I’ve already selected text. For example, if I haven’t activated the replace selected text tool before selecting text, navigating to that tool deselects my text.

After I’ve identified a proofing issue in the text I’m reading, I have to decide what I want to do with the text, select the correct tool to perform that action, and then go back to select the text that requires that action—a sequence that takes my attention away from the text that needs fixing and forces me to hold that information in my working memory while searching for the right tool. It is four mental steps instead of two, which means it takes me twice as long.

The only tools available to me after I’ve already selected text are highlight, underline, strikethrough, and redact, which come up as a pop-up. Redact is available only in the paid version, and I have literally never used it (or underline, for that matter) as a proofreader.

A screen shot of a PDF in Adobe Acrobat Reader. After selecting text, a pop-up showing options to highlight, underline, delete, and redact the selected text.

2. The new Acrobat forces me to use my mouse where I previously used my keyboard

With Comments open in the old Acrobat, if I started typing, the program would insert the text I typed. If I selected text and started typing, the program would replace the selection with what I typed. Intuitive, right?—functioning just like a word processor. Unless there’s a setting I can change to enable this feature, it seems I can no longer do this in the new Acrobat. I can still select text and delete it with my keyboard, but the program no longer recognizes any text I try to input.

It seems also from Adobe’s guide to keyboard shortcuts in Acrobat that there’s no keyboard-only way to select some of the more commonly used proofreading markup tools, including insert text and replace selected text. For proofreaders with print disabilities, who rely on the keyboard rather than the mouse to navigate a document, this change must be an accessibility nightmare.

The decreased keyboard functionality also means that when I’m trying to mark up text in a link, I can’t use my keyboard to navigate and select the text. Using the mouse activates the link, so in the past, I’ve clicked near a link, keyed over to the text I want to select and used the shift key to select the text. Now, instead of being able to directly mark up the change with keystrokes, I’m having to highlight the linked text and use a comment to explain the change, which is both more cumbersome for me and possibly less precise and clear to the designer inputting the changes. (Adrienne suggests that if you are drawing in your markup, you could draw it elsewhere and then drag it toward the link.)

3. The categorization of commenting and annotation tools is unintuitive

Although Adobe claims that “The new experience aims to provide an intuitive and seamless experience for viewing content and performing any action on the PDF,” I’ve found the opposite, and it seems I’m not alone.

The annotation tools have now been subcategorized:

  • To access the insert text or replace selected text tools, you first have to click on the comment tool.Screen shot of the comment menu in Adobe Acrobat's new interface being selected. The options in the menu are "Add a comment," "Replace selected text," "Insert text," "Add text comment" and "Attach file"
  • To access the delete text (strikethrough) tool, you first have to click on the highlight tool (though, as I discussed above, this is less of an issue because strikethrough is also accessible through the pop-up and the delete key).

Not only does this categorization force the user to click twice to access a tool, but it also imposes an unnecessarily mental burden on the user to remember how these tools have been classified. To me, this classification is completely unintuitive: thematically, insert, replace, and delete text are related, and comment and highlight are related, but in the new interface they are not organized in that way.

It might be possible to customize your toolbar so that you have those annotation tools available with one instead of two clicks. But as far as I can tell, customization is available only in the paid version of Acrobat and not for the free Acrobat Reader. If you have Acrobat Pro and can confirm one way or the other (I’ve let my subscription lapse), please leave a comment.


I had to disable new Acrobat to get through my last proof, and I’ll continue using the old interface as long as I have access to it, but I dread the day Adobe switches everyone permanently to the new Acrobat, unless they also change it to be less frustrating.

Screen shot from Adobe Acrobat's View menu. The option "Disable new Acrobat" is highlighted.

If you’ve encountered other points of friction while navigating the new Acrobat or if you have any useful workarounds for ones I’ve identified, please tell us about them in a comment below.

Acrobat and Acrobat Reader are crucial tools for proofreaders working digitally, and any changes that unnecessarily hinder our work cost us time and money. As in many other parts of life, we’re subject to the whims of a powerful corporation without meaningful ways to control or even contribute to our own experiences. At the moment I can see only two options to engage—both with nebulous outcomes that are less than satisfying:

  • Submit feedback to Adobe’s User Voice platform. (I’m submitting the bulk of this post to that platform.) I genuinely don’t know how much Adobe cares about these submissions, but if enough of us complain, or if any complaint gets enough upvotes from other users, maybe the company will recognize that there’s a problem.
  • Become involved in user testing to ensure proofreaders’ voices are represented among users Adobe consults when they decide to roll out new features. In the past the company has partnered with UserTesting.com for its user testing, so signing up to be a tester there might eventually lead to some opportunities to offer input. I can’t help thinking there must be a less circuitous and more effective way to become part of Adobe’s user testing pool, particularly for specific programs, so if you know of one, please share it in a comment.

What I’d love to see is an organized advocacy effort among proofreading and editing organizations to more systematically make our opinions known. I’m sure the total number of proofreaders is still a small percentage of Acrobat’s user base, but a collective voice might still be more powerful than disparate individual ones. I’ve proposed sessions on this kind of professional advocacy for both the Indexing Society of Canada and Editors Canada conferences in 2024 and would love to see you there if you have ideas to contribute to the conversation.

9 thoughts on “Hazardous cleanup”

  1. MS Word’s commenting changes are a similar landmine. For now they are optional, but MS says they will eventually be permanent. The MS feedback forum has been lit by angry editors, but I’ve been unable to get ACES interested. It would be noce if they and Editors Canada would be more active in these areas.

  2. I noticed that the arrangement and selection of highlighting colors is now different depending on whether one is adding highlighting with the right-click menu you identify above or right-clicking on existing highlighting and trying to change the color via Properties… This is very confusing when one wants to match colors to facilitate filtering.

    1. GAH—I didn’t even notice that! I don’t use different highlighting colours myself, but I can definitely understand how infuriating that discrepancy would be. Have you complained about this on User Voice? I will gladly upvote.

    2. Follow-up: I see when trying to replicate this that if the Comment toolbar is closed you do get the new pop-up menu with the 18-color highlighting set; if the comment toolbar is open you don’t have access to this pop-up as far as I can tell.

  3. Totally agree with all of this! I particularly agree with the unintuitive categorisation of the annotation tools. What I also find frustrating is how you have to unselect the tool by clicking on the top arrow. Another step that consumes time.

  4. Oh, good. Now Adobe Acrobat Reader seems to have disabled my scroll bars, too, even in the old interface. They’re really committed to making the user experience worse!

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