tablesThe 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.

A ta­ble is also use­ful if text in your lay­out needs to be po­si­tioned side-by-side or float­ing at spe­cific lo­ca­tions on the page. (Two com­mon ex­am­ples are let­ter­head and cap­tion pages.) Mak­ing these is of­ten frus­trat­ing with ba­sic lay­out tools, but eas­ier with tables.

How to insert a table

WordInsertTables panel → Table → drag your cur­sor around the grid to set the num­ber of rows and columns.

Mac OS Word 2011Tables tab → New → drag your cur­sor to set the num­ber of rows and columns.

Mac OS Word 2016Insert tab → Table → drag your cur­sor to set the num­ber of rows and columns.

Word­Per­fectTableCreate → set the num­ber of rows and columns.

Your word proces­sor’s de­fault ta­bles have two for­mat­ting de­fects you should al­ways fix: cell bor­ders and cell mar­gins.

Cell bor­ders are the 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.

ClutteredAthosPorthosAramis
Priors?YesNoYes
Alibi?NoYesYes
Confession?NoNoNo
CleanAthosPorthosAramis
Priors?YesNoYes
Alibi?NoYesYes
Confession?NoNoNo

In this ex­am­ple, cell bor­ders are un­nec­es­sary. In other cases, they can be use­ful. The goal is to im­prove the leg­i­bil­ity of the ta­ble. When you’re ready to for­mat your ta­ble, I rec­om­mend turn­ing off all the cell bor­ders to start, and then turn­ing them back on as needed. (See rules and bor­ders for more tips.)

How to turn off cell borders

WordRight-click in the ta­ble to dis­play menu → Borders and ShadingBorders tab. In the col­umn on the left la­beled Setting, click the but­ton next to None. Click OK.

Word­Per­fectRight-click in the ta­ble to dis­play menu → Borders / FillTable tab. Un­der Default cell lines is the la­bel Line and a but­ton. Click this but­ton and se­lect the X in the up­per left cor­ner. Click OK.

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.

DenseAthosPorthosAramis
Phone(617) 555 1453(508) 555 3232(603) 555 8490
Cell(617) 555 3145(508) 555 2323(603) 555 8491
Fax(617) 555 5413(508) 555 4545(603) 555 8492
NotAthosPorthosAramis
Phone(617) 555 1453(508) 555 3232(603) 555 8490
Cell(617) 555 3145(508) 555 2323(603) 555 8491
Fax(617) 555 5413(508) 555 4545(603) 555 8492

The de­fault cell mar­gins, es­pe­cially in Word, are too tight. With cell mar­gins, a lit­tle goes a long way—start around 0.03″ and in­crease by in­cre­ments of 0.01″. Also, there’s no need to make the cell mar­gins the same on all sides. The top and bot­tom mar­gins can be big­ger than the side mar­gins, if that looks right.

How to set cell margins

WordRight-click in the ta­ble to dis­play menu → Table PropertiesTable tab → Options. Un­der Default cell margins, en­ter the val­ues. You can also use the up and down ar­row keys to change the val­ues in in­cre­ments of 0.01″.

Word­Per­fectSe­lect the whole ta­ble. Right-click in the ta­ble to dis­play menu Format. Click the Column tab and ad­just left and right cell mar­gins un­der Inside margins in column. Click the Row tab and ad­just top and bot­tom cell mar­gins un­der Row margins.

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