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Creating documents: a Practical Guide

Inserting content

Inserting content

Sometimes paragraphs and headings aren't the only things you want in your document. On this page, we'll look at how to insert other kinds of content, from getting your images (and their captions) right to adding in tables and linking to other material and webpages.

The Insert menu

Both Word and Google Docs have Insert options (a ribbon tab in Word, a drop-down menu in Google Docs) that allows you to insert a range of content and structural elements as needed.

Using options from the Insert menu is usually more reliable than copying and pasting in content, whether you're inserting images, data, or text from another document. There's also a range of options for inserting shapes and drawings.

If you find that inserting content in a document often messes up the rest of your formatting, don't fear! The rest of this box will explore some useful tips for inserting content to keep the structure and formatting of your document correct.

Inserting images

Word logo

To insert pictures in Word, you can use the Illustration section of the Insert tab, and using the Pictures and Shapes options as relevant. Mostly, you'll want to use a Picture from File, which allows you to browse for and insert a saved picture.

When inserting a picture, you'll get a range of Picture Format options that will appear as a new tab on the ribbon. From here you can crop and edit your image as needed, but more importantly, you can set the positioning and text wrapping options for your image. For most academic documents, you will want to set the wrap text/position option to In line with text, as this will ensure that the picture stays at the same point in the document, regardless if you add or remove content from before or after the image. Other options will mean that the picture stays at the same point on the page, even if the content around it changes, and could be an issue if you add content before the image.

Newer versions of Word will often automatically generate alt text for your images. Alt text, short for alternative text, is an accessibility feature that allows people who cannot view the image to understand what content is being conveyed by it. You can right click on any image in Word and choose Edit alt text to add, check, and edit any alt text. You can also tick Mark as decorative if the image adds no information and is purely decorative. For more on alt text see our Accessibility Skills Guide.

Google Docs logo

To insert an image in Google Docs, go to Insert > Image. There are a range of options, including selecting a file from your computer, searching the web, and accessing the image file from Google Drive. Note that the 'Search the web' option will show images that may be copyrighted, so it is better to search outside of Google Docs to find appropriate copyright-free images.

There are a range of image options you can set from the toolbar once you've inserted an image. Be aware of text wrapping: you'll want to make sure that you use in line with text or, if you use another option, make sure that move with text is also selected, so the image stayed at the same point within your content.

When you add an image in Google Docs, you will need to write alt text for it. Alt text, short for alternative text, is an accessibility feature that allows people who cannot view the image to understand what content is being conveyed by it. Right click on an image in Google Docs and choose Alt text to open the dialogue box, where you can write out briefly what information is being conveyed. For more on alt text see our Accessibility Skills Guide.

Creating diagrams and putting images and shapes together

It has become somewhat of a meme that when you insert an image or similar into a Word document, all formatting rules may go out of the window. However, this is often because people try to put multiple images together in a Word document, without knowing some helpful tricks for keeping those images in the right places.

Word logo

If you're using Word on Windows, the Drawing Canvas (found on the Insert tab) is a saviour. When you insert one, it creates a space in which you can insert other content, like shapes and images and text boxes, that stay together even as the content around the drawing canvas changes.

If you're using a Mac, sadly the Drawing Canvas does not exist. If you need to create complex diagrams or combine images in ways that don't work easily on Word, one workaround is to combine the images/content in PowerPoint, then select all the items and right/command click, then choose 'Save as Picture'. That single picture can then be inserted into your Word document, making it easier to manage.

Google Docs logo

In Google Docs, you can use the in-built Google Drawings feature if you need to combine shapes, text and/or images. From the Insert menu, choose Drawing, then choose New if you don't already have a Google Drawing file on Drive you want to use. A window will open where you can draw shapes and lines, add text boxes, and insert images. Once you're done, click Save and close to insert the drawing into your document.

Inserting other kinds of media

Especially if you're sharing documents rather than printing them, you might want to insert other kinds of media, like videos and audio. The first thing to consider is if you really want to insert the media into the document itself, or just link out to it. Embedding media into a document can slow down the document, and (obviously) won't work if you print it.

Word logo

On the Insert tab in Word there is a Media section/button, which allows you to insert video and/or audio into your document. Different versions of Word have a different range of options under Media, but you can always store the file online using Google Drive or YouTube and then link to the file if you don't have a suitable option in the version of Word you're using.

Google Docs logo

There isn't a built-in way to embed a video in Google Docs. You can link to online videos using a hyperlink, or for a more dynamic option, you can take a screenshot of a video, insert that into the document as an image, and then select that image and click on the hyperlink button to make the image itself a link to the video.

Captions and cross-references

Some features of documents might seem like text, but actually have clever code behind them. For example, captions on images, diagrams, and tables can be created so they are linked to the image in question, with automatic numbering. This also allows you to create lists of figures and tables in your document automatically.

A Word document with an image inserted so you can right click on the image to get an option to Insert caption
This is a caption telling you the image is an example of inserting a caption in Word.

Cross-references are another clever feature, that allow you to link to other parts of a document (such as headings, figures, and tables) within text. This is useful if your document is designed to be read on a computer rather than printed out.

Note: Both of these features currently exist in Word, but not in Google Docs. To create captions in Google Docs, you can only use 'inline' formatting to put the text with the picture, and can't include automatic numbering. You can link to headings and bookmarks in Google Docs, instead of cross-references, which we'll look at below.

Inserting captions (Word only)

Captions are crucial in documents, especially academic documents. Using captions for any images, diagrams, and tables you insert into your document means these can be automatically numbered, so you can refer to them in the text (using cross-references) and create lists of your figures and tables.

To create a caption, right click on the item you want to give a caption to, then choose Insert caption. You can also select the item and then go to the References tab on the ribbon, then Insert caption. A box will option allow you to write your caption alongside the automatic label (by default this is figure, but you can change it to equation or table or create a new label as needed) and automatic number (Word uses the label given to work out the number, so if you give something the label 'figure', it will check how many figures are before this one in the document and then put the corresponding number). You can also choose the position of your caption in relation to your item and change the numbering format if needed.

Once you've created your caption, you'll notice that the number in it is highlighted grey if you click on it. This means that it is a Word field, so it automatically generated, so you should not try and type to change this number. If it is incorrect, you may need to select your whole document (Ctrl + A, or Cmd + A on a Mac) and right click to use Update Field to make sure these are up to date.

If you need to change the appearance of your captions, then you can do this using the Caption style, which is already set for any captions inserted this way. See the Using styles page for how to modify the apperance of a particular style.

Inserting and using cross-references (Word only)

Cross-references allow you to refer to other parts of your document in a way that will automatically update numbering as this changes. Cross-references can also link to the part in question, so the user can click on the cross-reference and be taken to that part of the document. For example, to refer to a figure you had inserted, you could use a cross-reference which might insert Figure 1, and then if you added two more figures before that one in your document, the cross-reference in your text would update to Figure 3 automatically, without you needing to manually edit it.

You can make a cross-reference that refers to a numbered item, a heading, a bookmark, a footnote, an endnote, an equation, a figure or a table.

To insert a cross-reference in your text, you will first need to ensure that you have created the item in question (or it cannot be linked to!). Then, put your cursor in your document at the point you want your cross-reference to appear in your text. Go to the References tab and choose the Cross-reference button to open the cross-reference dialogue box. This allows you to select which reference type you want to use, e.g. whether you want to link to a heading, a figure, etc. Once you select one, you will see a list of all of your available captions/items of that type, so you can select the right one to insert. You can also choose if it uses the whole caption or just the label and number, and whether or not it links to that item. Then click Insert to add your cross-reference.

Linking to headings and bookmarks in Google Docs

Google Docs doesn't have cross-references, but it does include some features within its link options to link to other parts of your document. If you highlight text and click on the Insert link button (the chain link icon), as well as pasting in a link or searching for a file on Google Drive or online, there is an option at the bottom of the list for Headings and bookmarks. Clicking this will show a list to all of the headings and bookmarks in the document, so you can select one to link to.

To create headings, you must use heading styles, and then those headings will appear in this list to link to. If you want to link to another part of the document that is not a heading, you must first create a bookmark. Put your cursor where you want the bookmark to go, then go to the Insert menu, then choose Bookmark. This creates a bookmark, or anchor point, at that place in your document. This can then be linked to using the option mentioned above.

You can also use the IDs that headings are given in a Google Doc to give people a URL to the whole document that sends them to a particular heading. In your document, click on a heading, and you'll notice that the URL in the address bar in your web browser will have changed to have #heading=h.[string of characters] at the end. If you copy and paste this link (which works the same as the link to a heading mentioned above) you can send it to others who have sharing permissions to access that file, and then will be taken straight to the heading in question when they open the document.

Inserting tables

If you need to put tables of data into your document, there's a few things you need to consider, whether you're using Word or Google Docs.

Firstly, and most importantly, is to decide if your data is right for a table. Tables are designed to hold rows of data, with columns for different aspects of that data. The formatting of tables is designed to work best where each cell holds an item of data, rather than lots of different items of data. Thinking about how your table needs to be laid out and if it is the best way to communicate your data is important, saving you time and effort.

If you do need to use a table, you'll then need to work out the column headers and what each row of data is. You might already have the table stored in another application, like a spreadsheet, or you might be putting the data together for the first time as you write up.


When you insert a table, make sure you give your table a label so readers know what the table is. In Word, you'll need to right click and insert a caption. Google Docs does not have a caption feature, but make sure to add a label before your table.

Creating a new table and editing table design

Word logo

To create a table in Word, put your cursor at the position in your document where the table needs to go, then go to the Insert tab and choose Table. You can either select a number of rows and columns to insert a simple table of that size, or choose the Insert Table... option to open a dialogue box where you can set column and row numbers and also set how the table behaves in relation to the content, choosing whether the columns automatically fit to their contents or the window they're in.

Once you've inserted your table, you will see the Table Design tab on the ribbon. This allows you to change the colours, shading, and borders of your table. Think about readability and what you can do to make elements like column headers clear to people.

You can select and then right click on your table to access other options for working with tables, like inserting more columns and rows, and changing the Table Properties. The Table Properties options are particularly useful for advanced formatting, especially for larger tables. Under the row option in the Table Properties you can choose whether or not rows can be broken across pages, which is useful when using a table for a large amount of text data (if appropriate), and if the header row of the table repeats across pages (which can be helpful for anyone reading your document).

Google Docs logo

To create a table in Google Docs, go to the Insert menu, then Table and drag your mouse to choose an initial size for your table (you can add more rows and columns as needed, so it doesn't matter too much).

Once you have a table in your document, you can right click to see all the table formatting options (you can also see these from Format > Table). Using the Table properties option allows you to set border and cell colours, vertical alignment within cells, and set if rows are allowed to overflow across pages. It is the best way to control the finer details of formatting for tables, which can be quite fiddly.


Inserting content exercises

Once you've gone over the material on this page, try the following exercises to apply your knowledge:

  1. Create a test document and insert an image.
  2. Set the text-wrapping for the image as 'In line with text'.
  3. If using MS Word, right-click on the image to create a caption and set the caption label as 'figure'.