Microsoft’s Word’s ubiquity is rivaled only by its badness. Since we’re stuck using it–and often using files created by other people in it–we need to find coping mechanisms.

One especially vexing problem in Word is the way it deals with placed graphics. This post isn’t an exhaustive tutorial on how to work with graphics in Word—it lays out one method that will work in most cases, and explains how to make that work.

Let’s say you receive a file that looks something like this, with a placed photo and some text boxes and arrows laid over it to call out features.

a picture of three adorable cats in a Microsoft Word document
A typical document

You edit the file, do something seemingly innocuous, and you wind up with something like this

a picture of three adorable cats in a messed-up Microsoft Word document
A messed-up document

Obviously you can’t let the file go out into the world like this, and because you are a good person, you want to leave things better than you found them. So how do you fix this? Or if you’re required to create files like this, how do you prevent this from happening in the first place?


It’s easy to get into trouble with Word any time you try using its page-layout features. If at all possible, it’s best to treat every document as a continuous river of text, rather than isolated blocks. The problem with images is that Word gives you numerous options for treating images as isolated blocks, and exactly one option for treating them as part of that river. When you mix externally created images and graphics that are created in Word, things get complicated. And these are overlaid on one another, things get even more complicated.

In the image shown above, there’s a photo that was created externally, and three text boxes and arrows that were created within Word. So the first thing to understand is how Word treats these differently: the photo is a picture and the arrows & text boxes are shapes. They have different formatting options available to them. However, interestingly, you can crop a picture in Word using its “picture format” tools, and that turns it into a shape (!).

Most of the trouble you run into with these hybrid images revolve around placement options. Word gives you two sets of parameters for dealing with pictures/shapes in text: positioning and text wrap

Microsoft Word's positioning pane
Word’s positioning menu options
Microsoft Word's text-wrap pane
Word’s text-wrap menu options

If a visual element has the positioning in line with text, then it behaves like a typed character–it can sit on a line with other characters, it moves around with other elements, etc. And I argue that this should be your goal for most or all visual elements you use in Word. You can set them on their own line, use other techniques to marry them to captions, center them, etc.

With all the other positioning options, the element is anchored to a spot on the page–a certain distance from a corner, for example. If you anchor the element, you use the wrapping options to tell Word how to wrap text around (or over, or under) the element. There may be legitimate reasons to do this, but Word is a rotten tool if that’s what you’re trying to do. I often see files where someone has placed an image with fixed positioning that they really just want inline with text–and then they insert a bunch of carriage returns to put the text down below it. This will break as soon as the text above gets a little longer or shorter.

Also, just for fun, if you set the wrap to “in line with text,” Word automatically does the same for the positioning, and vice-versa. This kind of makes sense, but can be confusing.

To simplify your life, treat each graphic as a standalone block, on its own line, flowing with the text.

This gets more complicated when you’re combining a picture with shapes. By default, the picture is placed “inline”. By default, a shape is positioned relative to…something—positioning can be relative to the page, margin, paragraph, line, with separate options for horizontal and vertical position. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So we’re back to inline positioning as the right way.

But with the Orientalist mysticism that you only find in cheesy action movies, when you’re dealing with a hybrid image like this, Word forces you to do things the wrong way before you can do them the right way. Here’s the trick: we need to manually position the picture and the shapes relative to each other. And Word doesn’t let you manually position elements that have inline positioning–again, it does make sense, but is confusing until you understand the principle.

First, make sure that all the visual elements have some kind of positioning that isn’t inline–it doesn’t really matter what.

Second, get all the shapes lined up correctly over the picture that acts as the backdrop. If some of the shapes are getting hidden behind the picture, select the picture and then execute Picture Format > Arrange > Send to Back.

Third, I like to group all the shape elements. This is probably unnecessary. Shift-click on all the elements in turn to select them and then execute Shape Format > Arrange > Group. The image below shows the shape elements grouped together, with a frame around them. You can still separately manipulate the elements in a group–it’s possible to move a grouped element unintentionally; if you need to move the group, you need to grab it by the group’s frame.

grouped shapes
Grouped shapes in Word

Fourth, shift-click to select the grouped shape elements and the background picture, and group those.

Fifth, set the positioning of these grouped elements to “inline with text.” Phew! It’s faster to do than to read.