Best way to send layouts with editable text to writers/editors who don’t have design software

Here’s a common design workflow problem, probably most relevant to in-house designers, but also to agencies who have a lot of non-design writing or research staff, or freelancers who work with in-house writers. Many designers encounter it and have a way of dealing with it: I’m interested in what our collective design experience can come up with for the best way to deal with it.

Here’s the problem:

  • I’m making a text-and-images layout, and I need to send early drafts to writers for copy editing.
  • These writers don’t have design software and never will: buying it in isn’t an option. Assume they have MS Office, and that maybe one person in the office has Acrobat but they can’t access it easily. (In my case, these people are writers and research experts, there are loads of them, and copy writing and editing for designs is a small portion of what they do)
  • The copy editing is somewhat dependant on the layout: the writers need to be able to see the flow of the page to see how each chunk fits in, and how much space they have for each chunk. I’m thinking of cases like infographics and diagrams with detailed labels where the text, imagery and layout go hand-in-hand, rather than cases like books or magazine layouts where we’d just say “give the designer between XXX and YYY words and trust them”.
  • The layout at this stage doesn’t need to be exact on their end, but they need to be able to get an idea of it. It doesn’t matter if what they send back to me is a bit of a mess visually, I’ll just be extracting and using their editted text

So, what are the best methods for giving people an editable rough approximation of a layout?

Any answer should ideally be better than my current method – which is to email around PDFs showing the rough layout alongside flat Word documents with the text, hoping that the writers will understand and respect the layout and understand how much space they have… They rarely do… and since copy writing and editing for designs is a small portion of what they do, this is not likely to change.

Ideally, it should be less clunky and time-consuming than creating a separate PDF form and re-creating every text box as an input element to create a sort-of editable PDF, or, re-creating an approximation of the layout by hand in something like Word.

I’ll accept answers starting with any common design software. In my case it’s mostly Illustrator, but tricks that work starting with designs in InDesign, Photoshop, Corel, Inkcape etc are all relevant.


I’ve been doing my own research and found an option that seems to work okay. It gives the writer an imperfect but near-accurate version of the layout to work in, and takes almost no time away from real work to produce it.

It’s based on turning a PDF into a Word doc… the very idea of which makes me feel unclean… but it seems to work, and the copywriter I used as an experimental guinea pig said he found it easier to work to set layouts this way.

  • Source a program that does a half-way decent job of turning PDFs into Word documents. Nitro PDF Pro is surprisingly okay/non-awful so far, and there’s a free online version if you don’t mind waiting 20 minutes and trusting your work with a remote 3rd party service. I’ve also seen a recommendation for this other free online tool but have not tried it
  • Save / export as a PDF, use said tool to convert it
  • (optional) Wash your hands and face, and ask for forgiveness from the Design Gods
  • (optional) Add track changes, notes and some ugly yellow Word highlighting to key bits needing particular attention, to remind everyone involved (including yourself) that it isn’t supposed to look good, it’s a Word document… and that those bits where text is getting randomly clipped are okay for this, really, they are okay…
  • Send it to the copy writers or editors with clear instructions
  • Copy their edits back into the real design program, and cast that word doc – which is by now probably grotesquely deformed – into the abyss, never to be spoken of again. It has fulfilled its purpose.

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