Business and legal documents often include sensitive information that need to stay inside your organization. This can include trade secrets, client names, addresses, social security numbers, and other confidential data. Needless to say, it’s your company’s responsibility to keep all of this data safe and secure.

So, what do you do if you need to share inside documentation with a third party? You may need to do this as part of a public reporting requirement. You may also need to provide documents to business partners, clients, and vendors.

In that case, the most common solution is to black out sensitive text. Oftentimes, one or two black bars on the page is the only difference between a super-secret document and one that’s safe for public consumption. Here’s how to clean up your PDFs for sharing with third parties.

The Easy Way: Use Acrobat Pro

Because PDF files are an Acrobat document, Acrobat Pro is by far the best tool for editing them. It’s not free, but it’s practically a requirement for anyone who plans on redacting a lot of text. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Open your PDF document in Acrobat Pro.
  2. Open the Tools menu, and select the Redact tool. This will bring up a new toolbar with the redaction tools.
  3. Click Mark for Redaction, and you’ll see a pop-up window. Click OK.
  4. Drag your mouse to highlight any text you want to black out. You can also double click individual words.
  5. On the Redaction Tools toolbar, click Apply, and another pop-up window will appear. Click OK.
  6. Another popup will appear, asking if you want to remove hidden information from your document. Clicking Yes will remove metadata such as the author information.

Blacking Out Every Appearance of a Word

The above method is quick and easy for short documents. But what if you have a longer document, with the same sensitive names or numbers repeated many times? Here’s how to redact every instance of the same word or phrase:

  1. Open your document, bring up the Tools menu, and click the Redact button to bring up the Redaction toolbar.
  2. Choose the option called Mark for Redaction, and change from the default option to Find Text.
  3. You’ll be prompted to choose Single Word or Phrase, Multiple Words or Phrase, or Patterns. Choose your option.
  1. If you selected Single Word or Phrase, type the word or phrase, and click Search & Remove Text.
  2. If you selected Multiple Words or Phrase, click Select Words, and either type your words in the search field or copy and paste them from a list. Click Add, then click Search & Remove Text.
  3. If you selected Patterns, choose the type of pattern. There are many options including credit card numbers, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and email addresses. Click Add for each pattern you want to redact. When you’re done, click Search & Remove Text.
  1. After you click Search & Remove Text, you’ll be able to review Adobe Pro’s results. To do this, click the “+” sign.
  1. To redact all instances of a word, phrase, or pattern, click Check All.
  2. Alternatively, check each individual instance. This can be helpful if you want to redact part of a name. For example, you can redact “Lindsey” when referring to Lindsey Smith, but not to Lindsey Jones.
  1. Click Mark Checked Results for Redaction. If you close the search window without doing this, none of your text will be redacted.
  2. On the Redaction Tools toolbar, click Apply, and another pop-up window will appear. Click OK.
  3. Proceed as before, and save your file.
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Blacking Out the Same Area of Every Page

Sometimes, you might want to black out the same part of every page. This most often happens when you want to cover a header, footer, logo, or watermark. Thankfully, Acrobat Pro makes it easy to remove these markings. Here’s how it’s done.

  1. Open the Tools menu.
  2. Click Redact.
  3. Use your mouse to highlight the area of the page you want to redact.
  4. Right click the black area, and it will bring up a toolbar. Select Repeat Mark Across Pages.
  5. This will bring up another dialog box. You can choose to repeat the mark across all pages, only odd pages, only even pages, or only a specific range of pages.
  6. Click OK.
  7. On the Redaction Tools toolbar, click Apply, and another pop-up window will appear. Click OK.
  8. Proceed as before, and save your file.

Check Your Work

Before you send out your PDF, you’ll want to make sure your redaction actually stuck. Thankfully, this is easy:

  1. Close your PDF document, and open it in a new window.
  2. Select a block of text that includes a blacked-out portion, and copy it to your clipboard.
  3. Open a text editor like Microsoft Word or Notepad, and paste your selection.
  4. The blacked-out section should not appear.
  5. Open the PDF document in a new Acrobat window, and search for the text you blacked out.
  6. If the redaction was successful, the text will not show up in your search results.

Blacking Out Text Without Acrobat Pro

As we said at the outset, Acrobat Pro is by far the most powerful tool for blacking out text in PDF documents. That said, it’s not the only way. Here are a couple of other ways to redact your sensitive text.

Take a Screen Capture

There’s any number of free editing software available these days. For example, anyone with Windows already has a copy of MS paint. So why not use that software to redact your documents? Let’s go through the process:

  1. Open your PDF, and adjust your zoom setting so the page fills the entire screen.
  2. Take a screen capture. In Windows, you can do this by hitting “Ctrl + Print Screen,” which will copy a screenshot to the clipboard. You can then paste the image into your editing software. You can do the same thing on a Mac by hitting “Shift + Command + 3.”
  3. Using the tool of your choice, black out any sensitive information. This is usually easiest to do with a paintbrush tool, but it’s also simple enough just to use the eraser.
  4. For larger areas, it helps to draw a box and use the fill tool. If you do this, zoom in and make sure the text is actually unreadable. Sometimes, the fill color will be a different shade of black, and the text will be visible at a high zoom level.
  5. Make a backup save in case you need to perform further edits.
  6. Save your image as a PDF file if your image editor provides that option. Repeat this process with each page.
  7. If you don’t have that option, select the whole image, and copy it to your clipboard.
  8. Create a new, blank document in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Now, paste your image into the file, and adjust it so it fills the page. If you have more than one page, continue editing them and pasting into the document, with one PDF page occupying a single document page.
  9. With all of your pages copied, save the document as a PDF file. Google Docs and Microsoft Word both support this function. If you’re using a different document editor, you probably won’t be able to save the file as a PDF.

The advantage of this method is that it can be done with software you already own. That said, it involves a lot of copying, pasting, and opening various programs. If you’re redacting a lot of pages, it can get very tedious, but for redacting one or two pages, it’s pretty painless. 

Work on a Paper Copy

For longer documents, you might want a faster editing process. In that case, fire up your printer and grab a sharpie. It’s time to do some old-school analog work.

  1. Open the PDF file, and print it.
  2. Using your sharpie (or any black permanent marker), black out any text or images you want to redact.
  3. Scan the document, or use your phone to take pictures of the pages.
  4. Now, open each image file, copy it, and paste it into its own page of a Microsoft Word or Google Docs document. As with the previous method, make sure each image fills its page.
  5. Save the document as a PDF file
  6. Open the PDF and zoom in on any redacted text to make sure it’s unreadable. If you can make out the words, go over that area again with the marker, re-scan the image, and replace the page in your Word document.
  7. Repeat Step 6 for any pages with readable text.

This method is more efficient if you’re working with long documents. On the downside, you’ll go through a lot of paper, and you’ll inevitably end up with marker all over your fingertips.

The Final Word

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to redact text from your PDF documents. Whether you want to do it using Acrobat Pro, or use one of the alternative methods, it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. You can easily black out anything you want, and create clean documents to share with others. That’s all there is to it!

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