The best tool for gridded or complex layouts

The good news: tables are one of the hand­i­est tools in your word proces­sor. A table is usu­ally the right solu­tion for lay­out prob­lems where white-space characters aren’t up to the task.

The bad news: tables can be dif­fi­cult to use. The user inter­face for edit­ing them is com­plex and finicky. While I can’t give you a full tuto­r­ial on using tables—refer to your man­ual or help file—I can give you a few direc­tional tips.

I’ve already pointed out the ways in which typewriter habits have endured. But an unfor­tu­nate truth about word proces­sors is that their basic model for page lay­out is sim­i­lar to that of a type­writer of a hun­dred years ago: the doc­u­ment is treated as one big col­umn of text. That’s great when all you need is one big col­umn of text. It’s not so great oth­er­wise.

A table is use­ful if you have a spread­sheet-style grid of data. In the type­writer era, a grid like this would have been han­dled with tabs and tab stops. These days, you’d use a table.

Cell bor­ders are the dark lines around each cell in the table. Cell bor­ders are help­ful as guides when you’re load­ing infor­ma­tion into the table. They’re less use­ful once the table is full. The text in the cells will cre­ate an implied grid. Cell bor­ders can make the grid clut­tered and dif­fi­cult to read, espe­cially in tables with many small cells.

Cell mar­gins cre­ate space between the cell bor­ders and the text of the cell. Increas­ing the cell mar­gins is the best way to improve the leg­i­bil­ity of a dense table. The default cell mar­gins, espe­cially in Word, are too tight.