Preparing a word document

Example: Download this example Word document that is prepared for exporting to PDF

Preparing a word document for PDF accessibility is relatively straightforward. If you are familiar with Word then the settings that are in this guide are probably familiar too.

This guide assumes that the Acrobat [tab in Word] Preferences setting to Enable Accessibility and Reflow with Tagged PDF is checked so when you export the Word document to PDF, Tags will be automatically generated. If you use this Tagging option without using the settings in Word, your document will not tag properly and will not pass accessibility.

So what are we preparing here?

Preparing a word document is all about applying the proper settings to content in Word documents so that Acrobat will recognize the structure types and be able to generate the proper PDF tags needed for accessibility.

This guide covers common content types we see in PDFs. In general, if you apply a setting in Word, it will be carried over to the PDF.

That being said, don’t expect perfection. Acrobat is not perfect, and there will be tag touch ups once the document has been exported to a PDF. These settings are to aid, not complete, PDF accessibility.


Set your headings using the Styles options under the Home tab in Word instead of adjusting the font size. If you need a different font size for the heading level you are using, create a style for it and adjust the font size there.

Don’t forget about heading hierarchy. PDF documents only allow one H1 heading level; always mark the first heading in your document as an H1. The rest of the heading levels can have multiple occurrences as long as you don’t skip heading levels when progressing down through the levels.


You can also return to a higher level from a lower one; you don’t need to keep progressing down the heading levels, you need to make sure that if you do, they go in order.



Your heading structure counts for more than identifying headings; it also sets your bookmarks. All headings will be made into bookmarks when the document is exported. Once you are in Adobe with your PDF, you can find all the headings listed under the Bookmarks tab; note that the hierarchy you set in Word will be mirrored in Acrobat.


Links are very easy to set; you just need to either type out the URL and hit space to enable the hyperlink or use the Insert > Link option. Either of these processes will convert to a proper link tag in Acrobat, including the special OBJR tag needed for the screen readers.

Link Alt Text

Link alt text in word is called ScreenTip. To find it, right click on your link and open the Edit Link options. ScreenTip is in the top right of the options window. Once you select it, it will bring up a pop-up textbox where you can add in your alt text. When the document is converted the ScreenTip text will be set as the Link tag’s alternative text.

Note: Leave numbers and special characters (ex. dashes) out of alt text unless they are needed for context. Example: a link to The Co-operators website should be “Cooperators website” without the hyphen because if present, the alt text will read “The Co Dash Operators website.”


Images are easier than links; all you need to do is right click and select Edit Alt Text. Often when you insert the image, it will bring up the Alt Text [right] side menu automatically.

Note: Word will automatically generate alt text for your image, however, it is often too generic and a description with more context is usually needed.

Decorative Images

Unfortunately, it does not seem like marking an image as decorative is carried over to Acrobat. You can mark an image as decorative in the Alt text side bar, just underneath the alt textbox. Despite this, images that have been marked decorative in Word get placed in a Figure tag in Acrobat and alt text is generated.

Decorative images need to be marked as Artifacts in Acrobat (and generated alt text removed).


Tables can be formatted to export the correct cell types, however there will still be some manual work to do once it is a PDF.

Exporting to PDF will insert paragraph tags into the table that will need to be removed. If you Autotag the document after it has been exported, it will prompt you to confirm that you want to re-tag and replace the existing tags. This will remove the paragraph tags, but it may cause structure errors to the table cells (TH change to TD) and to other content in the document, therefore removing the < P > tags manually is likely the best way to go about it.

To set which cells are headings in Word, click in the table and open Table Design. Here, you can specify which cells are headings, your options are the top row (Header row), and the left column (First column).

Avoid Creating Empty Tags - Spacing Settings

To minimize the amount of empty tags that are generated in a PDF use the Spacing settings instead of the Enter or Spacebar keys to set the spacing in your Word document.

Under the Layout tab you can set spacing for content within the Word document. This spacing is recognized by Acrobat and will not create any empty tags when it’s converted into a PDF.

Manual Checks and Lists in Word

There isn’t much to do to set up a list for export; just follow the normal process and format for creating a list. To create the nested list, you may have to adjust the List Level. Highlight the nested list items and open the first list options drop down, open Change List level and set it two the second position.

As long as you didn’t create indents with the spacebar or tab key, the list structure will be recognized, including the nested lists.

Even though there are many settings in Word that can be set so that the Autotag feature will work, there are still some manual processes in Acrobat needed for the PDF:

  1. Table header IDs must be set manually in Acrobat
    • This means that connecting TD cells to the Header ID is also a manual process in Acrobat
  2. Column span for table cells that take up more than one column
  3. Paragraph tags that get generated in table cells need to be removed
  4. Any blank spaces that get tagged will need to be made artifacts. Blank spaces are often caused by the following:
    • Trailing white space
    • Using the Enter key to create spacing between content in the Word document
    • Inserting images can cause empty tags before/after the image.
  5. Reading order must always be manually checked. If you have done your due diligence in Word, your Reading order will likely flow properly but the check is always needed
  6. The bullet dots/chevrons/dashes etc. used in lists will need to be made artifacts in Acrobat. There is no way to set them as artifacts in Word, so the Autotag feature will think they are part of the list item text and end up being read by the screen reader.
  7. Any Paths (lines, design elements etc.) that get tagged will need to be made artifacts
  8. Decorative images need to be tagged as artifacts