Screenwriters often find themselves with PDF of a screenplay when what they actually need a Final Draft (.fdx) file that they can edit.

Some common scenarios:

  • Your hard drive crashed, and the only copy of your screenplay is an old PDF you sent to a friend.
  • You’ve been hired to rewrite a project, but the producers only have a PDF of the script.
  • The script only exists on paper. Now it’s been scanned to a PDF — but that still doesn’t get you a script you can edit.

However it happens, it happens a lot. Among my working screenwriter friends, it’s one of the questions I get most.

There are basically three ways to convert from a PDF to Final Draft:

  1. Retype it.
  2. Copy and Paste and Reformat every line.
  3. Use Highland.

Update: The folks at Final Draft emailed me to suggest an additional workflow, which I’ll detail after the section on copy-and-paste.

Retyping it

This is the worst option, but back in the days of paper scripts, it was the only option. It’s as awful as it sounds. If you do it yourself, it’s exhausting. If you pay someone to do it, it’s expensive.

Retyping inevitably introduces mistakes. Spellcheck will catch some typos, but words will get omitted.

The only scenario in which I can envision retyping a script is if it’s so bad you really do want to rewrite it scene by scene. But in these cases, I think you’re better off putting the old script aside and starting at page one.

Copy and Paste and Reformat every line

PDFs come in two basic types. Some PDFs are essentially photos of pages. You see the text, but it’s really an image. Other PDFs include the text itself. In Acrobat or Preview, you can select the text.

Most PDFs these days have selectable text, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to copy the text out. If you paste it into Final Draft, you’ll end up with a mess that will take quite a bit of work (and time) to sort out. But it’s doable.

Here’s a screencast to show you this workflow:

As you can see, reformatting a script this way sucks. It’s better than retyping, but there are many ways things can go wrong. Final Draft is not well-suited to this kind of brute force. You will learn to despise the Reformat box.

But if you only have a PC, this may be your best option, because the next solution only exists on the Mac.

Use Adobe Reader to save as text, then open in Final Draft

After I posted this entry, the folks Final Draft pointed me to an alternate workflow. Here’s what they recommend:

If you have a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader you can go to File > Save As > Text and save the document as a text file.

Import this text file into Final Draft (File > Open) as a script but you may need to do some reformatting.

Here’s a screencast:

In my testing, it’s only a little better than copy-and-paste. Elements were more likely to be recognized correctly, but line breaks and spacing glitches were daunting. The script also swelled from 114 to 343 pages. I had similar results with all the PDFs I tried.

So while it’s generally an improvement over copy-and-paste, you’d still need to spend quite a bit of time getting a useful script out of this workflow

Use Highland

If you have a Mac, or a friend who has a Mac, this is your best choice. Hell, if you have a mortal enemy who has a Mac, it’s worth kissing up to him for the five minutes this will take.

Highland is a paid app in the Mac App Store. It’s actually a full-on screenwriting app, but its ability to melt down PDFs was its original claim to fame, and is still unrivaled.

With Highland, you just drag in the PDF. Highland sucks out the text and does all the reformating. From there, you can edit it right there in Highland, or export it to Final Draft.

Here’s a screencast showing the process:

Can Highland convert every PDF to Final Draft? No.

If a PDF is really just a stack of images, there’s no text to suck out. You may come across these kinds of PDFs when dealing with scanned paper scripts. However, many screenwriters report success running PDFs through optical character recognition software like Prizmo 2 first. That’s certainly an option.

PDFs created by Fade In don’t convert well. It’s because of the odd PDF-building code Fade In uses. It’s not something Highland is going to be able to fix.

Built to be used

My company created Highland because I needed it. While it’s not a huge moneymaker,1 it serves a crucial need for screenwriters.

We used to offer a free demo version of Highland, but it confused users more than it helped. (Support emails like, “How do I get rid of the watermark that says ‘Highland Demo?'”)

Also, the demo version was always lagging behind. We update Highland frequently, often twice a month. Maintaining both the paid and demo versions was slowing down development, and the feature sets kept getting out of sync. It’s not easy or rewarding to build deliberately crippled versions of your apps.

So rather than a demo version, I’m planning more screencasts like these to show features and workflows. In the meantime, if you find yourself with a PDF to convert, head over to the Mac App Store and grab Highland. For $30, it will save you untold hours of frustration.

  1. Highland revenues could probably support a single coder with a love of ramen noodles and penchant for tent living.