3.3 Using Tables

Much professional, technical writing contains all sorts, tables, pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, flow charts, and so on. Once you get the hang of putting these things into your writing, you should consider yourself obligated to use them whenever the situation would naturally call for them.

This page looks at the use of tables; the following page looks at charts and graphs.


Tables, of course, are those rows and columns of numbers and words, mostly numbers. They permit rapid access to and relatively easy comparison of information. If the data is arranged chronologically (for example, sales figures over a ten-year period), the table can show trends—patterns of rising or falling activity. Of course, tables are not necessarily the most vivid or dramatic means of showing such trends or relationships between data—that’s why we have charts and graphs (discussed in the next section).

Uses for tables. The biggest use of tables is for numerical data. Imagine that you are comparing different models of laser printers in terms of physical characteristics, such as height, depth, length, weight, and so on. Perfect for a table.

However, don’t get locked into the notion that tables are strictly for numerical data. Whenever you have situations where you discuss several things about which you provide the same categories of detail, you’ve got a possibility for a table. For example, imagine that you were comparing several models of a laser printer: you’d be saying the same category of thing about each printer (its cost, print speed, supply costs, warranty terms, and so on). This is ideal stuff for a table, and it would be mostly words rather than numbers (and in this case, you’d probably want to leave the textual discussion where it is and “re-present” the information in table form.

Table format. In its simplest form, a table is a group of rows and columns of data. At the top of each column is a column heading, which defines or identifies the contents of that column (and often it indicates the unit of measurement). On the left edge of the table may be row headings, which define or identify the contents of that row. Things get tricky when rows or columns must be grouped or subdivided. In such cases, you have to create row or column subheadings. This is illustrated here in Table 3:


Table 3

Title: Traditionally, the title of a table is placed on top of the table or is the first row of the table. If the contents of the table are obvious and there is no need to cross-reference the table from anywhere else in the report, you can omit the title.

Style and Formatting Guidelines for Creating Tables

Keep the following points in mind when creating and using tables:

      • Refer to the table in the text just preceding the table. Explain the general significance of the data in the table; don’t expect readers to figure it out entirely for themselves.
      • Don’t overwhelm readers with monster 11-column, 30-row tables! Simplify the table data down to just that amount of data that illustrates your point—without of course distorting that data.
      • Don’t put the word or abbreviation for the unit of measurement in every cell of a column. For example, in a column of measurements all in millimeters, don’t put “mm” after every number. Put the abbreviation in parentheses in the column or row heading.
      • Keep words in columns left-justified (although you will occasionally see columns of words all centered).
      • Include column headings over the columns of data. The alignment of column headings to the actual columnar data is variable. If you have a column of two- or three-letter words, you’d probably want to center the column heading over that data, even those it is words not numbers. (Doing so, avoids an odd-looking L-shaped column.)
      • Use a footnote when there is a special point you need to make about one or more of the items in the table instead of clogging up the table with the information.


Additional Resources


McMurray, David. "Tables." Online Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0]


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Technical Writing at LBCC by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.