How to Edit Text in GIMP

Working with text in GIMP can be a bit difficult, even if you’re familiar with image editing and digital typography. Along with the basics of how to edit text in GIMP, I’ve put together a few of the most useful tips and tricks that will make your life easier when you’re working with text. 

Editing Text Layers in GIMP

Here are two different methods for editing an existing text layer in an open GIMP file:

The Text Tool Method

Select the Text tool in the toolbox, and click on the text in your GIMP image. As long as it’s still editable, the Text tool popup will appear and your text box will be outlined.

The Text tool popup menu and the handles around the textbox show that it is currently active and editable

The Layer Properties Method

In the Layers panel, locate your text layer and right-click it. In the layer properties popup menu, select Edit Text on canvas from the very top of the list. If your text is editable, the Text tool popup will appear and the textbox surrounding it will become visible. 

Edit Text on canvas is hidden in the Layer properties menuEdit Text on canvas is hidden in the Layer properties menu

If these methods didn’t work for you, then you might have accidentally converted your text into pixels, which means it’s no longer editable as text. You can either use the Undo command until it’s editable again or re-create the whole text layer from scratch. 

As I said at the beginning, working with text in GIMP can be very difficult. If you’ve got the time, read on for an explanation of why GIMP works like this and what you can do to stop it from happening next time you need to edit text in GIMP.

Saving With the Right Format

If you want to be able to edit your text layer in a future editing session, you’ll need to save your file in a format that supports layers. JPG is the most popular image format in the world, but it’s not designed to store layer data, so it won’t be good enough to store your text in an editable format.

Instead, it’s best to use GIMP’s native XCF file format. This will allow you to store all the possible information GIMP has about your file, including the various layers, masks, paths, and any other content that would be lost by saving it in a flattened format like JPG. 

The Save command now defaults to the XCF format which preserves your text layer data

GIMP makes a big deal of separating the two concepts of saving your work and exporting your work. Saving your work is simply storing it again for future use in GIMP, which is why GIMP forces you to choose the XCF format if you open the File menu and choose Save or Save As.

Exporting your image is preparing it for sharing with someone else, and so has a whole separate set of processes for each different format type, but only a few like PSD and TIFF support saving layers, and even then you may run into issues depending on the compatibility of different editors. 

Why Can’t I Edit My Text in GIMP?

When you create a new textbox with the Text tool, GIMP stores any text you type in as vector shapes – but once you apply any edits to the layer, GIMP will rasterize the text, a process that converts the editable vector data into pixels. 

In other words, GIMP turns your text into a picture of the text, sort of like pressing a well-inked date stamp onto a page. Once you’ve stamped it, you can’t change the date afterward. If it happens in GIMP, you’ll have to use the Undo command and start again – at least it has that advantage over the physical world! 

The text layer complete with editable vector shapes, not yet rasterized by GIMP

This rasterization process happens anytime you apply an edit to a text layer other than a basic move or scale command. Even something as simple as rotating the text will force GIMP to convert it to pixels (although I’ve discovered a trick that lets you write vertically anyway, which I’ll explain below). 

Adding a drop shadow to my text layer made GIMP rasterize the layer, and now I can’t edit my text at all!

It’s easy to tell when a text layer has been rasterized, since its layer thumbnail changes from the A icon used to indicate a text layer and becomes a small preview of the rasterized pixels found in the other layers, like the one above it containing the image of Wilber. 

This whole process is fairly frustrating, but it’s a legacy of the long development of GIMP and its general unwillingness to handle vector data. Along with basic Bezier curve paths used to create selections or align type, entering text is the only other common usage of vector graphics in GIMP. 

Using the Text Editor Workaround

There is one other method for editing text in GIMP, although it has its own unique weirdness: the Text Editor. The Text Editor allows you to edit your text in a separate popup window instead of using the Text tool overlay that sits above your text box. 

The GIMP Text Editor isn’t exactly what I’d call user-friendly

It doesn’t allow you to do the same basic changes like typeface and font size, and it doesn’t even show you what your text will look like in your chosen font – but you can use a variety of different writing styles, including support for the right-to-left reading order used by some non-English alphabets. 

A variety of reading directions and orientations are available at the top of the window

Notably, it also allows you to write vertically while still maintaining your text as editable vectors. This allows you to easily change text written at a 90-degree angle to the standard baseline, even though if you had written the text normally and then rotated it with the Rotate tool, GIMP would rasterize it. 

A Final Word

I’m not sure why GIMP is this limited when it comes to typography, but hopefully, you’ve now got a better sense of what you can expect while editing text in GIMP and what pitfalls to avoid. 

Hopefully, text editing will get revamped in the next version of GIMP that’s currently under development, but considering that it took them 6 years to go from version 2.8 to version 2.10, it’s probably worth learning how to edit your text in the current version instead of waiting – even if it’s full of strange quirks. 

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Ella

    My text is still showing the “A” text logo yet when I go to edit it, it immediately jumps in size and seems to be editing some earlier version of the layer. I am 100% sure I am editing the right layer but fear I will have to start all over again even though it is not yet rasterized and I did save the file as a .xcf so I could go back in and make edits. It isn’t respecting whatever my final edit was before I saved and I am sure I am missing something minor but I can’t seem to edit any of the text layers without starting over. Any ideas why this might be?

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Ella, that sounds pretty confusing to me, too. I don’t think I’ve run into anything like that before. Good call on saving the file as an XCF so you can (hopefully) get to the bottom of this.

      What happens if you try to use the text editor to edit the text? With the Text tool active, click the ‘Use Editor’ checkbox in the Tool Options panel, and GIMP will open a popup window where you can edit your text. I generally don’t use the Text Editor, but it might be useful here. Does it display your text properly in that window, or the weird earlier version of the text? If it shows up properly, do any additional changes get applied to your text layer when you close the Text Editor?

      Not sure if that will help, but it’s all I can think of. Hope it works out!

  • Jay Cropper

    Thank you for this post Thomas. This helped me understand the vectorization that is happening in GIMP whenever I rotate text and the steps needed to get around that. Knowledge is power ????

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome, Jay, and I completely agree – knowledge is power!

  • Wendy Tarasoff

    This did not help me to edit the text in a box.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Wendy, sorry to hear that! Is your text still an editable layer? If it is, just use the Text tool and click on the text in the image window and you should be able to edit it. If you still can’t edit it, check the section of the post called ‘Why Can’t I Edit My Text in GIMP?’ for more information.

      If none of that helps, can you tell me a bit more about the issue you’re experiencing?