Microsoft

Go back to basics with Word tables

Susan Harkins shows you how to create meaningful Word tables using built-in options.

Microsoft Word

In Word, a table is a grid of cells arranged in rows and columns. We use them to organize data in a logical and meaningful way, usually when the values have some relationship to one another and a list won't do. To the novice, creating a table with lots of data and formatting might seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, Word has lots of tools to simplify the task. In this article, we'll review some basics. Specifically, we'll use Word's built-in tools to create a table that presents data in a meaningful way.

I'll be using Word 2013 on Windows 7, but you can do most everything discussed in this article down to Word 2003. For your convenience, you can download the .doc or .docx example file.

Insert a table

To generate a blank table, simply position your cursor where you want to add the table and do the following:

  1. Click the Insert tab and then click Table in the Tables group. To insert a table in Word 2003, use the Table menu and choose Insert.
  2. In the resulting gallery, select the appropriate number of cells to create the number of columns and rows you need (Figure A).
    Figure A
    Figure A
  3. Click the selection to insert the blank table (Figure B).
    Figure B
    Figure B

If you already have some or all of the data, you can quickly convert that text if the values are delimited in a consistent matter. For instance, perhaps you created a set of columns using tabs or you imported some data delimited by space or comma characters. When this is the case, select the data and create the table as follows:

  1. Click the Insert tab and then click Table in the Tables group.
  2. Click Convert Text to Table (Figure C).
    Figure C
    Figure C
  3. Word will use the selected data to present the best choices (Figure D).
    Figure D
    Figure D
  4. You can alter these, if necessary, but if the data is consistent, you can usually depend on Word to generate a sound table (Figure E). In this case, Word is able to determine that tabs separate each value and then use those tabs to determine that the table requires four columns and eight columns. Simply click OK without changing any of Word's defaults.
    Figure E
    Figure E

The data is in a table, but you'll probably want to format the table a bit.

Modify the design

Word creates a generic table with little formatting. The quickest way to format a table is to use one of Word's many table styles. Figure F shows our table formatted using Plain Table 3 in the Table Styles quick gallery (on the contextual Design tab). Simply click the thumbnail to apply the style. For a full list, click the drop-down to the right of the gallery (circled in Figure F). If you're lucky, the style will have everything you need, but it's easy to tweak the results. (In Word 2003, use Table AutoFormat on the Table menu.)

Figure F

Figure F

Format a table quickly by selecting a table style.

Modifying the style is almost as simple as applying the style and, fortunately, Word offers a number of ways to modify the applied style. For instance, the Plain Table 3 style displays two borders to distinguish the header and category from the actual data. You might also want an outside border, which you can add as follows:

  1. Select the entire table by clicking the table handle (circled in Figure G) at the top-left corner.
  2. On the contextual Design tab, click the Border Styles drop-down in the Borders group and choose Double Solid lines (Figure G).
    Figure G
    Figure G
  3. Next, choose dark blue from the Pen Color drop-down.
  4. To apply both border attributes, click the Borders drop-down and choose Outside Borders (Figure H).
    Figure H
    Figure H

The results are shown in Figure I. First, select the border attributes you want and then apply them using the Borders drop-down. In this way, you can apply different border styles and colors to individual rows, columns, and even cells. In Word 2003, select the entire table, right-click, and select Borders and Shading to access border attributes.

Figure I

Figure I

Apply a border to a table.

You could continue to modify the applied style using the options in the Table Style Options group. In each case, the option works as a toggle to enable or disable a specific option. They're self-explanatory, so we won't review them all, but Figure J shows the result of unchecking both the Header Row and First Column options. As you can see, disabled, the table no longer distinguishes the header row or categories in the first column with special formatting attributes. We don't want to uncheck these options in our example table, but you should know that you can. In addition, if your table contains a row of summarizing values at the bottom, use the Total Row option to distinguish it.

Figure J

Figure J

Disable options.

Last, but not least, is the Shading drop-down in the Table Styles group. If you select a single cell, you can change that cell's color. If you select the entire table, Word shades the entire table. Remember that formatting should add to the table's readability. Don't add formats because you can; add them because they're meaningful.

Modify the layout

In Word 2013, you can quickly add or delete a row or column. To add a column, simply hover the mouse outside the area where you want to add information and click the plus sign, shown in Figure K. In Word 2003, select a row, right-click it, and choose Insert Row. To delete a row or column, select it and then right-click the selection. Choose Delete Row or Delete Column, accordingly.

Figure K

Figure K

Add or delete rows and columns with a quick click.

You might want to change the size of the rows or columns. To do so quickly, change one and then use the Distribute Rows or Distribute Columns option. To demonstrate, let's make the rows a bit taller as follows:

  1. Pull the bottom border down; you could just as easily move the top border up a bit.
  2. In the Cell Size group on the contextual Layout tab, click the Distribute Rows option. As you can see in Figure L, Word distributes the new space evenly between all of the rows. (In Word 2003, you'll find these options on the AutoFit command's submenu.)

Figure L

Figure L

Distribute space evenly.

Additionally, you could use the Alignment options to position the text within the individual cells. Figure M shows the result of using two different alignment options:

  • I applied Align Center Left to the Company column
  • I applied Align Center to all the other columns, but you might prefer Align Center Right for the right-most column

Figure M

Figure M

Assign alignments.

You'll find alignment options in Word 2003 on the Table Properties command's submenu.

At this point, the format and layout are good, but you might have noticed that the information isn't organized as well as it could be. Specifically, you might want to sort the rows by company as follows:

  1. Click inside the Company column and click Sort in the Data group on the contextual Layout tab.
  2. Word does a good job of anticipating your sort. In this case, Word defaults to a text sort on the Company column. The Using option selects Paragraph, which is also correct, because Word interprets each row in your table as a paragraph.
  3. We can sort each company group by selecting Year from the Then by drop-down. Word automatically defaults to a numeric sort (Figure N).
    Figure N
    Figure N
  4. Click OK to see the sorted table shown in Figure O.
    Figure O
    Figure O

After sorting, it's easy to see that some of the values are redundant. One solution is to delete repetitive values and merge the cells as follows:

  1. Select the three cells that contain Company A.
  2. Click Merge Cells in the Merge group on the contextual Layout tab.
  3. Delete two of the Company A values (Figure P).
    Figure P
    Figure P

Sometimes, you can overdo this layout, so don't go nut! Banded tables are especially difficult because merging isn't dynamic, and the banded rows will cease to make sense. I don't recommend merging for this particular table, but you should know that the feature is available. If you think you might merge and split cells, assign a table style after doing so, but there's no guarantee a banded style will work well with merged and split cells.

Remove a table

To quickly remove a table, convert it to text. Select the table and choose Convert to Text in the Data group on the contextual Layout tab.

Table basics

Learning table basics presents possibilities. You can explore the options and experiment. As with most formatting and layout options, less is more. Use only those options that make the table more readable or add value to the table's meaning.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise, nor do I ask for a fee from readers. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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About Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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