Information etiquette

In Excel, cells define where information goes. In PowerPoint you can put a text box anywhere - just don't put the information in too small a font. Word will let you place text anywhere you want by double-clicking on the blank page, or you could set up tab stops. But to lay out a lot of regular information, you really can't beat a table.

If you know how many rows and columns you want, hitting Table-Insert-Table allows you to type in numbers and will put the table where your cursor lies. The Insert table button on the Standard toolbar lets you pick columns and rows by colouring in a grid.

For a more complicated layout, choose Table-Draw table, and click and drag to wherever you want another cell.

Doing this means you can have a row that's the width of the table, followed by rows with as many cells as you want. If you get a cell wrong or just want to skip one, click with the eraser tool to remove it. But always think before creating a complex layout - split or merged cells make it hard to select a row or column to format. Try formatting the cells first, then splitting them - see Figure 1.

Table options

The Tables and borders toolbar is crammed with tools for formatting and manipulating tables, plus options for sorting the content and adding a sum. Select a row in your table, right-click and choose Insert row to get another one above the selected row. Use the drop-down menu and you can add rows above or below, columns to the left or right, or individual cells. You can split one cell or column into two, and merge cells and columns into one. And if it all starts to look a bit messy, you can distribute the rows and columns evenly.

If none of the AutoFormats suit you, there are options for the colour, thickness and style of the borders around the cells - or you can turn them off completely. Fill cells with background colour and Word automatically turns the text white if you pick a dark colour. You can align text up, down, centrally or sideways, or switch it to run vertically.

Thinking big

When you're working in a big document with a table that runs over several pages, especially if several people are adding and removing information, you'll often end up with cells out of order, badly formatted or missing, which pushes the rest of the table out of place. The easiest thing to do is choose Table-Split table just above the problem to isolate it. Work out where there's an extra or missing cell and delete or add what you need to get things back in sync.

It can sometimes be easier to use Table-Convert-Table to text to switch to tab-separated text. You can put in tabs and paragraph returns more quickly than table cells and rows. Use Table-Convert-Text to table to put things back and then delete any blank rows.

If one cell no longer lines up with the rest of the column, choose Table-Show Gridlines to give yourself something to work with. Zoom in on the column or row to get a clear view and hold down the <Alt> key as you drag the edge of the cell into place to position it precisely. Hit Table-Hide gridlines to get a better idea of how the page will look when printed - see Figure 2. You can use Table-Table Properties to precisely size cells, columns or rows, too.

For really complicated layouts, it can be easier to go back to a simple layout. Split the table into pieces and use Table-AutoFit-AutoFit to Window on both pieces before you join them together. As a last resort, convert the whole table to text and back again to line the columns up.

If you can't get a table to fit on the page at all, check in Table properties on the Table menu to see if the "Preferred width" value is wider than your page - see Figure 3. Try Table-AutoFit-AutoFit to Content and use <Ctrl>-<Shift> to reduce the text size. Changes in text formatting within a cell mean the formatting information at the end of a cell marker is different from the rest of the cell. Select the whole cell rather than the text inside it to format it.

Word 2007 has much the same tools for laying out tables, although the live preview shows the table on the page as you select cells in the toolbar. The formatting tools concentrate on tables within a document, rather than tables to layout a whole page; for that you'll be able to use document parts.

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