InDesign 101: Flowing Text

Importing text seems simple: You choose File > Place (or press Command/Ctrl+D) and navigate to a text file to place it onto your page. But once that “place cursor” is loaded, what are your options? What’s going to happen if you click, click and drag, click inside an existing frame, or click on the pasteboard? You’ve got a lot of decisions to make, and—?as always—?the more you know about these basic functions, the more productive you’re going to be InDesign.

Remember that InDesign can only import plain text, RTF, or Word documents, so if you have some other format (such as WordPerfect), you’re going to have to convert it to something InDesign can read. And I’m not going to go into the options you get when you choose “Import Options” in the Place dialog box—?that’ll have to be a topic for another day. Instead, I’m going to focus on that place cursor?.?.?. here’s a rundown of all your options.

Looking at the loaded cursor

Once you’ve selected the text file you want to place and clicked OK to move back to the InDesign page, you’ve got a cursor that’s loaded with the text that you chose. (Hey, remember what they say: never point a loaded cursor at anyone, unless you intend to use it. But seriously, folks, if you do change your mind and want to cancel placing at this point, just press the Esc key to remove the loaded file.)
Look closely at the cursor. The first thing you should notice is that the first few lines of your text are displayed as part of the cursor (Figure 1). This is a terrific and handy feature that gives you the chance to confirm you’ve chosen the right text file.

Figure 1: The loaded text cursor shows a thumbnail preview of the beginning of your story.

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The next thing you should pay attention to is the particular look of the cursor, which changes based on where you place it. For example, if you hover the cursor above a blank area (not over an existing frame), you’ll see dotted corner lines appear at the top left (again, Figure 1). This dotted-line cursor indicates that if you click or drag here, InDesign will place the text inside a new frame. It also indicates that if there is more text than can fit inside that one frame, the extra text will become overset (it will appear cut off).

Clicking an empty area with a loaded cursor

Now that you’ve got the loaded cursor, you can click to get the text into a frame on the page. There are several things that can happen when you click a loaded text cursor on an empty area on the page or pasteboard. If you click somewhere in the middle of the page, where there’s no frame (Figure 2), InDesign creates a new frame that’s as wide as the area inside the left and right margins.

Figure 2: Clicking a loaded text cursor in the middle of a page

The top of that frame appears where the cursor was clicked. The text extends downward as far as the bottom margin. If, instead, you click right at the top margin (Figure 3), the frame fills the entire area inside all the margins. (Look for the little white triangle icon on the cursor; that indicates you’re right at the margin.)

Figure 3: Clicking a loaded text cursor at the top of the margin

While I said “left and right margins,” it’s actually, technically, the left and right side of the column—?but on a default page, there’s just one big column. If you have more than one column on the page, the frame hugs the margins of the column you clicked in.

If you click on the pasteboard (Figure 4), the top of the frame appears where you click, the width is the same as the width between the columns, and the frame extends down to the bottom margin.

Figure 4: Clicking a loaded text cursor on the pasteboard

Dragging with a loaded cursor

Instead of clicking, you can drag to create a specifically-sized text frame. However, I want to point out that (annoyingly) two of InDesign’s standard modifier keys don’t work while you’re dragging to create a text frame. Shift won’t constrain the frame to a square frame, and Option/Alt won’t draw the frame from the center outwards. However, you can hold the spacebar to reposition the frame as you drag.

Clicking into existing frames

You may not want to create a new frame on a page. Many times you have text frames that you want to fill with the loaded text. In that case, position the loaded cursor over the existing frame. The cursor changes to display curved lines around the text icon (Figure 5). This is the signal that the text will be placed into the frame.

Figure 5: Curved lines around the text icon indicate that the loaded text will flow into the frame.

However, if you want to put text into an existing frame, it’s sometimes easier to just select the frame and choose File > Place. After you choose the file on disk, the text will usually automatically flow into the frame without any loaded cursor. And it doesn’t have to be a text frame to flow text into it. It can even be an empty graphic frame (the one with the X through it) or an unassigned frame. If you don’t like this behavior, you can set your preferences so that InDesign will only place text into text frames. Just deselect Type Tool Converts Frames to Text Frames in the Type pane of the Preferences dialog box.

Notice I said the text will “usually” flow into the frame—?that’s because this behavior depends on the Replace Selected Item checkbox inside the Place dialog box. If the checkbox is on, the text will flow into the frame; if it’s off, InDesign ignores the currently-selected frame and loads up the place cursor.

What can you do when your cursor is loaded?

Many students freak out at the thought of holding a loaded cursor. They want to click to unload it as soon as they can. Or they are frustrated if they do something and they lose the loaded text.

Don’t rush into it! Here are just some of the things you can do without losing the text inside the cursor:

• Move to a new page

• Add
a new layer

• Move to a different layer

• Choose a menu command

• Start a new document

• Switch to a different document

• Switch to a different application

• Print or export

• Hold Command/Ctrl to get the Selection tool to move items around the page

• Zoom in or out (with keystrokes or keyboard shortcuts)

• Hold the spacebar to move around the page

• You can even change the program preferences!

That’s pretty much everything in the program, with one major exception—?you can’t choose a new tool. If you click a tool or type its keyboard shortcut, your text disappears from the cursor. But that’s a good thing. It’s easy to unload the cursor, and you’ll often find you want to do so. I routinely tap the V key to unload a cursor. You can do this by choosing any tool (or its shortcut) you want. An exception is that if you tap the W key, you’ll still keep your loaded cursor, but toggle in and out of the preview mode.

Fortunately, emptying a loaded cursor is undo-able. So if you’ve lost the text, just undo the action by pressing Command/Ctrl+Z, and the text reappears.

Threading text

Once you have text in a frame, you can thread the text so it flows in a continuous story from one frame to another. This is done using the in port and out port controls on the frame (Figure 6).

Figure 6: The in port and out port controls on a text frame

You link text from one frame to another by clicking (with the Selection tool, not the Type tool!) the in port or out port of the frame. This displays a loaded cursor. Then move the cursor over to the frame that you want the text to flow into. You’ll see a little chain icon (Figure 7). Click, and the text flows into the next frame.

Figure 7: Click the out port of one frame to load the cursor and then link to a second frame.

If there is more text than can fit into the frame, it becomes “overset,” and a red plus sign appears in the out port control (Figure 8). Click the plus sign with the Selection tool to load the cursor.

Figure 8: The red overset icon on a text frame

Flowing text onto many pages

When you click at the top of an empty page or column with the Place cursor, your text will fill only that one column. If the text is longer than that column, you’ll see the overset indicator. You can flow the text onto new columns or pages by clicking the overset icon, creating a new page (if necessary), clicking to flow the text, loading the cursor again, creating another new page?.?.?. I’m getting tired just describing it. Obviously you need a way to flow the text automatically onto many pages.

Here’s what you do: Position the loaded cursor at the top of your first page. Now, instead of a simple click, press and hold the Shift key and then click. Notice how the text lines of the cursor are replaced by the Autoflow indicator (Figure 9)? Click, and the text flows onto one column and page after another, threaded as one continuous story. You don’t have to worry about adding enough pages. The autoflow feature adds as many pages as are necessary.

Figure 9: The Autoflow icon in the loaded cursor indicates the text will flow onto as many pages as necessary.

Flowing onto a fixed number of pages

You can also flow text so it will not add new pages to the document, even if that means some of the text is overset. Let’s say you are creating an 8-page brochure. You start in the New Document dialog box and choose 8 for the number of pages. If you look in your Pages panel, you see all eight pages.

Now you want to fill the pages with text from a Word or RTF file. You don’t know if the space you have can accommodate all the text, but you do know that you have a limit of 8 pages for your piece. Instead of Shift-clicking (which adds pages), hold Option/Alt+Shift as you click. This is called Fixed-page Autoflow (it has its own cursor, too, which looks like a straight down-arrow), and the text flows onto all the existing pages, but stops at page 8, even if there is more text (Figure 10).

Figure 10: The Fixed-page Autoflow cursor flows text only onto as many pages as are in the document.

Using a Primary Text Frame

If you are flowing text into a document with a lot of pages, you may want to specify a primary text frame when you create the document (Figure 11). Primary text frames have special powers that make them much more versatile than their predecessors when changing the master applied to a page.

Figure 11: Select Primary Text Frame when you create a new document. This replaces the Master Text Frame option in CS5.5 and earlier.

In order to get the primary text frame to automatically create new pages as you flow text, you need to make sure that Smart Text Reflow is turned on in the Type pane of the Preferences dialog box (Figure 12). It’s a good idea to enable the Limit to Primary Text Frames option, so that, for example, a single overset line in a threaded story won’t accidentally create new pages. You might also want to turn on Delete Empty Pages if you expect your text to flow forward and backward.

Figure 12: The Smart Text Reflow settings for working with long documents

Once you’ve got your primary text frame on the master page, you can simply load your cursor (with the Place command) and click on top of one of the frames. The text automatically flows into that frame, and then?.?.?. wait a moment?.?.?. and InDesign creates as many pages as are necessary to hold all the text.

Threading or Linking?

When InDesign was first released, the term for flowing text from one frame to another was “threading.” “Linking” was reserved for images placed into InDesign files.

The problem with the term “threading” was that not very many users understood it or remembered it. They would look in the Help files for “linking text” but would only get information on placing images. However, as the years passed, Adobe saw how many users were confused as to how to link text. Today the InDesign Help files now use both terms, threading and linking. You can use either term, but remember if you want to see the lines that connect text frames, it is “Show Text Threads,” not text links (View > Extras > Show Text Threads).

Primary Text Frame vs. Master Text Frame

If you’re using InDesign CS5.5 or earlier, you won’t find the Primary Text Frame Feature; instead, the New Document dialog box will have the option for a “master text frame.” Like a primary text frame, the master text frame allowed you to flow text onto many pages, but you still had to hold the Shift key to access the Autoflow feature. You also had to release the master text frame (Command/Ctrl+Shift-click) to start typing inside the frame. In contrast, you can type into a primary text frames just by clicking with the Type tool.

Master text frames never worked exactly how people expected them to, especially when applying new masters to pages that already had text on them. When you applied a new master to a page that already had text on it, the new master did not change the attributes of the frames on the document page. This was especially frustrating for those of us who were used to the way QuarkXPress worked.

With the primary text frame feature, you can apply a new master page to a document page and the frames on the document pages adjust accordingly (Figure 13). If you gave up using master text frames in older versions of InDesign, and you’re now using CS6 or CC, you should investigate how primary text frames can be incorporated into your workflow.

Figure 13: Pages with one primary text frame (top) reflow when a new master with three linked frames is applied (bottom).

Creating your own primary text frames

If you didn’t turn on the Primary Text Frame checkbox when you started your document, don’t fret: It’s pretty easy to create your own custom primary text frames. Open the master page and draw as many frames as you need. For instance, a cookbook publisher I know uses three linked frames on the page.

Click the out port on the first frame to load the cursor. Click inside the next frame that you want to link. Then click on the out port of the second frame, and link to the third frame. Repeat until all the frames have been linked. (You might want to choose View > Extras > Show Text Threads (Figure 14) to keep track of which frames are linked.)

Figure 14: Text threads show how the frames are linked.

Your frames are now linked, but they don’t yet have the special abilities of primary text frames. But when you select any of the linked frames, you’ll see a small icon on the upper left corner. The icon displays a simple frame (Figure 15). This indicates that it is an ordinary text frame. Click that icon. It changes to a frame with an arrow extending from the out port position. That means the frame (and by extension, the whole thread of frames you just made) has changed to a primary text frame.

Figure 15: Icons indicating ordinary text frames (left) and primary text frames (right)

You can have as many linked frames as you want in the primary text frames, but you can have only one primary text frame story on each master. That is, just one primary thread per spread.

Understanding Text Flow

Once you understand how to flow text, you can speed through your long document projects. Table 1 will help you choose which type of text flow you will want to use.


Sandee Cohen is the author of the InDesign CC Visual QuickStart Guide, and will be presenting InDesign tips and tricks at PePcon: The Print + ePublishing Conference, 2014.


Sandee Cohen is a New York City-based instructor and corporate trainer in a wide variety of graphic programs, especially the Adobe products, including InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. She has been an instructor for New School University, Cooper Union, Pratt, and School of Visual Arts. She is a frequent speaker for various events. She has also been a speaker for Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and PhotoPlus conferences. She is the author of many versions of the Visual Quickstart Guides for InDesign.
  • Daniel says:

    Thanks for the detailed run through.

    Wondering if you have a solution to this: I’m creating name tags for a few hundred people and have four tags/text frames on the master page (primary frames). I’d like InDesign to add new pages when I’ve loaded the cursor but when I do (through shift click) it creates new text frames on the pages – it doesn’t load the text into my existing frames.

    My workaround is to add the 50 pages or so required and then manually link them from page to page which is a bit onerous.

    Thank you.

  • Fred says:

    Thanks! Well explained. Very helpful!

  • shadab husain says:

    if i have many text boxes with full of text.
    then how i link that all at a time.
    like 20 text boxes those are not linked each other.
    plead helpppp……..

  • Kafeel says:

    If the cursor is at right top and text is flowing from right top to the left bottom , how can we fix it ?

  • Kevin Scharnhorst says:

    The link for the image in Figure 12 is down.
    Very well written article with excellent use of images.

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