Look around you. Do stacks of paper cover your desk and crowd your keyboard? Do you ever wish you could find and use paper documents as easily as digital ones? Whether you’re just tired of the clutter or you want to modernise your workflow, it may be time to take steps in the direction of a paperless future. Here’s how to make it happen.

Paperless basics

Reducing clutter is one good reason to take your office paperless, but perhaps an even more compelling benefit is that when files are electronic, they’re searchable. That means no more rooting through folders and filing cabinets for one elusive page. What’s more, you can share documents more easily, and back them all up in case disaster strikes.

The key to doing all this is the searchable PDF format, which contains a scanned bitmap image of a paper document, with an invisible overlay containing searchable, selectable text. Your scanned documents look just like the originals, but you can interact with them as if they were PDFs created through a word processing package.

Any of numerous Mac OS X applications can turn a scanned image into a searchable PDF. Combine that software with a speedy scanner, and you’ll tear through your paper files in no time. You can then recycle or shred the papers you no longer need and store original copies only when necessary.

Tips to start

Scanning incoming paper is just part of the process. Here are other steps to take:

Reduce incoming paper  Ask to be removed from snail-mail mailing lists. Request that your clients and vendors switch to electronic invoicing and payments. You can also opt to receive electronic bank statements and utility bills.

Reduce outgoing paper  To help break the printing habit, try saving documents in PDF format instead, and then copying them to your iOS device so that you can carry them with you.

Put OCR in your pocket  Instead of collecting business cards, brochures, and handouts when travelling for business, pick up an iOS app that lets you snap a photo with your iPhone or iPod touch and perform OCR right on your mobile device. Examples of such apps include Norfello Oy’s £2.99 DocScanner 5.0 (www.docscannerapp.com) and Creaceed’s £6.99 Prizmo (www.creaceed.com).

Scanner options

If you’re hoping to convert hundreds or thousands of printed documents to digital format, you want a fast, no-nonsense document scanner. The most important attributes to look for in a document scanner are fast single-pass duplex scanning, a capacious automatic document feeder, and an OS X-compatible software bundle that includes easy-to-use OCR capabilities.

Mac users have more than a dozen such options in the £150 to £300 price range. We’ve been very happy with several different Fujitsu ScanSnap models we’ve used—our current pick would be the semi-portable £225 ScanSnap S1300 (www.fujitsu.com). However, scanners with comparable features and prices are also available from companies such as Canon, Epson and Xerox.

OCR software

After you snap a photo on your iPhone with Prizmo, you can optimise it and perform OCR with a couple of taps

Almost every document scanner includes bundled OCR software. For example, Fujitsu’s ScanSnap scanners and Epson’s WorkForce Pro scanners come with versions of Abbyy FineReader. However, if you prefer software with specific features not found in the bundle (such as support for additional languages or advanced PDF editing), you can buy standalone OCR software. Here are three of our favourites:

Abbyy FineReader Express for Mac  Although several scanner manufacturers bundle limited versions of this application, Abbyy’s (www.abbyy.com) full version of FineReader Express (£69.99, Mac App Store) is even more powerful, offering a selection of image-manipulation features and support for 171 languages.

DevonThink Pro Office  This £124 all-purpose document manager from DevonTechnologies (www.devontechnologies.com) not only performs OCR, but also integrates tightly with Fujitsu’s Scan­Snap scanners, letting you scan documents, convert them to searchable PDFs, and add them to your document database with one button press.

PDFpen  Smile Software’s (www.smilesoftware.com) PDF editing and annotation tool offers OCR too, and also has good AppleScript support (£39.99, Mac App Store).

Scripts that can help

Virtually all scanner software can save scans in the folder of your choice and in a variety of formats, including PDF. However, that alone doesn’t give you a searchable PDF; you must also process the image with OCR software. Some scanner software has built-in OCR capabilities. For example, Fujitsu’s ScanSnap Manager software can produce a searchable PDF from scanned documents automatically by using a built-in version of Abbyy FineReader, or it can divert raw scans to DevonThink Pro Office, which can then perform OCR.

However, in some cases the scanner’s software does nothing but save unprocessed PDFs, and in others it can open the PDFs in an OCR application but not tell the application to begin recognising the text. In such situations, your best bet is to use an AppleScript folder action to open the freshly scanned documents and initiate the OCR process. We’ve created scripts that do just this for Acrobat Standard 7; Acrobat Pro 7, 8, 9, and X; PDFpen and PDFpenPro; and Readiris Pro. Download the scripts at macworld.com/7243, and follow the detailed instructions to configure and use them.

Managing PDFs

Once you have a searchable PDF, you can simply store it in a folder and use Spotlight in the Finder to search its contents. However, several other programs specialise in managing PDFs. These enable you to categorise, tag, or organise them in a more flexible manner than the Finder allows.

DevonThink Pro Office is one of these; some other popular options include Bare Bones Software’s Yojimbo (£27.49, Mac App Store), C-Command Software’s EagleFiler (£27.99, Mac App Store), and Ironic Software’s Yep (£13.99, Mac App Store).