Table are, hands-down, the single most valuable tool for complex document production in Word. If you haven’t used tables, have used them but don’t feel the love, or if you’ve ever experienced table-related stress -- give this article a chance to bring you and Word tables together.
Tables are easy-to-use, flexible, and very powerful. Using tables for page layout can make your documents infinitely simpler and more manageable than alternatives like using floating graphic objects, text columns, or tabular columns to create complex page layouts.
This article will give you some key pointers and best-practice recommendations to help you learn to love tables…and help them love you right back!
Whether you need something simple like the heading portion of a memo (To, From, Re, etc.), a complex page layout with tables beside text and graphics, a form for people to complete electronically, or a financial table—Word’s tables feature is almost always your best choice for the simplest and most stable solution.
Using tables for layout is also the easiest and most stable way to place graphics beside other content in your document. When you paste or insert a graphic into your document and format it using the In Line With Text layout (see my earlier blog post: To Float or Not to Float for more information on graphic layout), you can place it securely and easily inside a table cell. And, you can even use the size of the table cell to size graphics, such as Excel charts, for your Word document without trial and error (Post a comment or drop me an email if you’d like help with that, and I’ll give you the steps for sizing Excel charts to fit your Word table cells).
Read on for specific tips on when and how to create and edit tables and their content, as well as tips for using nested tables and a few table features to avoid…
When is it better to use text columns (i.e., Format, Columns or the Columns icon on the standard toolbar)?
The only time to use text columns instead of a table is when you need text to wrap like newspaper columns … that is, when you need the text to automatically move to the next column and redistribute itself when the content changes. So, if you’ve got columns and you’re using column breaks to move from one to the next, or you’re using columns to place text and\or other content side-by-side, give tables a try instead and save your section breaks for something that doesn’t have an easier alternative.
There are so many ways to create a table. Does it matter which you use?
Well, only if you value your sanity :) The Draw Table tool is very cool, but it is never the best choice for creating a table. It takes longer than the alternatives and is much less likely to be precise. Remember, tables are organizers. Like a closet organizer, or that tray in your kitchen’s silverware drawer, they organize content into compartments that make it easier to find things, easier to make important things stand out, and enable you to fit more without looking crowded. And, like any organizer, tables need to be simple, precise, methodical.
Even if you’re looking for an unusual table construction – start with Table, Insert Table (or my favorite – the Insert Table icon on the Standard toolbar), select the number of rows and columns you need, and start from there. You can merge or split cells later.
However, Draw Table is one of my favorite table editing tools. For example, when you need to split columns that share a merged heading cell, just draw the split and then use the Distribute Columns Evenly icon on the Tables And Borders toolbar to redistribute your columns. No fuss, no muss, and no cells jutting out to oblivion or fussing and fighting to get cells to line up correctly. A terrific timesaver!
How do you format content inside tables?
One of the best things about tables is that you can apply font and paragraph formatting just like you do in body text … even paragraph styles. The cell marker (that marker you see at the end of every table cell when you’re viewing formatting marks in your document) actually serves as the last paragraph mark in each cell as well – so it stores paragraph formatting in addition to the cell’s formatting.
Since Word 2002, you also have Table Styles to work with. Table styles can be great timesavers as well – but there are some things to be aware of when using them. Check out my earlier post on table styles for more information and help making quick work of this relatively new feature.
What’s important to know when using tables to create complex page layouts?
The most important thing about your layout table is to keep it simple. If you need a table beside text, for example, nest the table that will sit beside text inside one cell of a layout table (commonly called the ‘host table’). Get more tips on nesting below – but first, a couple of other pointers on using tables as page layout:
- Unless your content will benefit from the use of cell margins, you’ll probably want to remove cell margins from all host table cells to enable you to utilize the full cell area and fit elements snugly into their table cells. To remove cell margins for the whole table, go to Table, Table, Properties, and click the Options button on the TABLE tab of that dialog box.
- Remember that you can remove the default cell borders so that the host table serves as an invisible layout organizer. (Note that, if you set up a table style that has no cell borders and no cell margins, you can set it as your default table style – so that it’s the format you automatically get when you create a new table – rather than the Table Grid default that has borders on all cells and left\right cell margins of .08” – just to save you a bit of time.) Create a table style and set it as your default through Table, Table AutoFormat.
- Remember that paragraph styles inside table cells will affect any content you place in that cell – whether it’s text, a nested table, or a graphic. Using paragraph styles intentionally inside of table cells is great – but if you just leave a paragraph style that you don’t need, you could end up with an indent, paragraph spacing, or other inconvenient formatting on your cell content. Avoid these complications by using Normal paragraph style when placing graphics or nested tables inside table cells, unless you have a paragraph style that will help you format a graphic, for example (such as if you want space above or below the graphic).
- Use table formatting intentionally and methodically to save yourself time and make table editing as efficient as possible – such as setting column widths, row heights, or cell vertical alignment through the Table Properties dialog box.
Table Properties tips:
1. If you hold down the Alt key while clicking and holding the mouse pointer on any column edge within a table, you can see column widths on the ruler. If the column width measurements on the ruler are different than they are in Table Properties, that’s because the width of left and right cell margins is included in the measurements you see inside Table Properties, but not in the measurements you see on the ruler.
2. Notice that, on the Table and Column tabs of Table Properties, you can set width by your standard unit of measure (such as inches) or by percent. The percent measurement is extremely helpful, for example, when you want to make sure multiple columns have the same width but don’t want to take time to figure out the actual width measurement.
- Set host tables to have Fixed Column Width (Table, AutoFit, Fixed Column Width). This will keep cell widths from changing when you add content to your host table.
What are nested tables and why should you use them?
A nested table is simply one table inside another. And it’s the best, easiest, and most stable method for creating complex layouts.
To create one table nested inside another, just click into the host table’s cell where you want to place the nested table and then insert the new table just as you would create a table in the body of the document. To nest an existing table inside another table, cut or copy it from its original location, then click into the host table cell where you want to nest the cut or copied table – and select Edit, Paste as Nested Table.
Note: A simple Ctrl+V paste just might work just as well. However, depending upon the location of your insertion point, Word might misinterpret what you’re trying to do with Ctrl+V and append the new table to the existing table rather than nesting it (yuck!). If you’d rather not take the step to select Edit, Paste as Nested Table – you can, instead, type a space in the cell where you want to paste the nested table, then use a regular Ctrl+V paste. That space lets Word know that your intention is to add content to the active cell.
When should you nest a table instead of splitting\merging cells of the host (or ‘layout’) table?
The host table should always be simple – a basic framework for your page’s organization. Never merge cells vertically in a host table (doing this messes with the row height and could cause editing complications), and consider dropping a nested table into a cell rather than doing a lot of horizontal splitting of cells. Doing this just helps you stay in control of the layout: you can so much more easily reorganize and reformat the page when you keep pieces compartmentalized.
Important: Keep in mind that you don’t need to have a nested table inside every cell of a host table. If the content in one cell of the host table will just be text paragraphs, for example, just type the text directly in the host table.
How about table features to avoid?
There aren’t many table features to avoid, but there are a couple. Top on my hit list is the Text Wrapping option on the Table tab of the Table Properties dialog box. Though allowing text to wrap around your tables sounds like an excellent feature—there’s a catch here: when you turn on Text Wrapping Around your table, Word places the table inside a graphic frame. And, as you might already know… frames can be a source of document instability. As they are floating objects, frames are also more complex to manage and position than regular tables. And, when you have a table in a frame, you lose some paragraph formatting capabilities within your table.
Instead of using text wrapping, create a nested table whenever you need text or other content beside a table. It will be faster and easier to create, and much easier for your document to manage.
On that same note, avoid using the Table Move Handle. It’s the icon that looks like a four-pointed arrow inside a box -- that appears at the top left corner of your table. It seems like a quick and easy way to move your table around. However, when you use it to move the table -- even a fraction of an inch -- it turns on text wrapping and places your table in a frame.
The Table Move Handle does, however, provide a nice shortcut for selecting the table. Just click on it (but don’t drag!) to select the whole table.
If you’ve had any specific issues with tables that I didn’t address here, or have questions on any of the topics I did address … please post a comment or drop me an e-mail.
Posted by Stephanie
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