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Mastering Word’s tables

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2013. Mastering Word’s tables. Copyediting June/July 2013: 10–11.

As copyeditors, we often need to create or edit tables of numbers and words, and Microsoft Word provides powerful tools for the job. Unfortunately, the tools aren’t always obvious, and their locations and behavior differ between versions. In this article, I’ll discuss the basics of using Word's tables effectively. I’ll focus on Word 2007 for Windows and Word 2011 for Macintosh. Unless otherwise noted, each instruction works the same way in both versions. Other versions work similarly, but you’ll need to explore to discover the differences. In addition to the individual screenshots of key points included in the article, I've also provided a PDF you can print to provide a reminder sheet.

Creating tables

Editors often need to transform a dense paragraph of details into a table that makes the information easier to understand. Start by carefully considering what you need to create, since this defines the initial structure and contents of the table. (You can subsequently modify your design, so don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. But it’s easier if you start right.) To create a new table:


Word 2007

Word 2011

From the ribbon

  • Select the Insert tab.
  • Click the menu arrow below the Table icon.

Inserting Word 2007 tables from the ribbon

  • Select the Tables tab.
  • Click the menu arrow beside the New icon.

Inserting Word 2011 tables from the ribbon


  • Select the table size from the sample grid that Word displays, or select the Insert Table menu item to define the characteristics manually.
From the menus
  • There are no menus, but the old keyboard shortcuts work: press Alt+A, then press I and T.
  • Open the Table menu.
  • Select Insert --> Table.

Sometimes you need to create a table from existing data. Word used to import spreadsheets directly, but Microsoft eliminated that feature from Word 2007. For a simple spreadsheet, you can select and copy the cells that you want to use as your table, and then paste them into the Word document. In most cases, they arrive correctly formatted as a table, and all you need to do is modify the table (see the next section). If this doesn’t work or if you need to edit information from a database, export the text from your software (usually via a Save As or Export function) using the “tab-delimited ASCII” text format, import the text, and then use Word to convert it into a table:


Word 2007

Word 2011

Import the text:

From the ribbon

  • Select the Insert tab.
  • Open the menu beside the Object icon, and select Text from File.
  • Select the file.
  • Not available.
  Inserting a text object in Word 2007

From the menus

  • There are no menus, but the old keyboard shortcuts work: press Alt+I, then press L.
  • Open the Insert menu, and select File.


  • Select the file.

Convert it into a table:

From the ribbon

  • Not available.

From the menus

  • Select the imported text.
  • Press Alt+A, then press V and X.
  • Select the imported text.
  • Open the Table menu, and select Convert --> Convert Table to Text.


  • Specify the character you used to separate the columns of information (e.g., tabs if you used tab-delimited text).

Tip: For heavy editing, don’t try editing in Excel, because Excel’s revision tracking is so awful it’s nearly impossible to communicate clearly with authors. Worse, most Word customizations don’t work in Excel. Importing the information into Word lets you clearly indicate corrections and comments, plus you can work faster and more accurately using familiar editing tools.

Modifying existing tables

Tip: Finalize the number of rows and columns before you combine or split table cells, otherwise adding new rows and columns becomes more difficult.

If you need more room in a table, click to position the cursor where you want to add the new information (in a table cell or at the end of a row):

Your options are columns to the left or right and rows above or below the current position. There doesn’t seem to be a keyboard shortcut to insert columns, but if you position the cursor at the end of a row and press Enter or Return, Word will add a row below the current row.
Word lets you merge (combine) or split cells. To merge cells, position the cursor at the start or end of the first cell, hold down the Shift key, and press the arrow key until you’ve moved the cursor enough to select two or more cells. Right-click and select Merge Cells from the menu. Conversely, position the cursor in a cell, right-click, and select Split Cells; Word displays a dialog box that lets you specify the number of columns or rows. In addition:

If you merge cells, the contents of all cells are retained but are separated by paragraph markers. If you split a cell, the contents generally appear in the first cell. If you’ve enabled Word’s drag-and-drop editing option, you can select subsets of information and drag them into other cells; if not, cut and paste works just fine.

To resize cells, rows, or columns, move the cursor to the edge of a cell until it changes to the “drag” cursor (a double-headed left-right or up-down arrow). Hold down the left mouse button and drag until the column or row is the right size.

Resizing a table by dragging the handles
Word may not let you do this if you’re editing someone else’s table and they have locked the rows, columns, or cells at a fixed size. To remove this constraint, position the cursor inside any cell (Word 2007) or drag the cursor to select the whole table (Word 2011), right-click, and then select Table Properties from the menu. In some cases, you may need to select the problematic row or column first. (In Word 2007, you can display this dialog box from the keyboard: press Alt+A and then R. In Word 2011, Table Properties is under the Table menu.) Check the settings in the relevant tabs of the Table Properties dialog box (Table, Column, Row, or Cell for the whole table, a column, a row, or a cell, respectively). If the "Preferred width" or "Specify height" checkbox is selected, deselect it and you should be able to modify the size. You can also use these fields to set the dimensions numerically if you find dragging difficult (e.g., when using a laptop’s track pad).

Preparing tables for printing

If you prepare tables for printing, you’ll often encounter tables too big to fit on a single page. To ensure that column headings automatically appear on each subsequent page, define the first row of the table as a heading row. To do so, position the cursor in the first cell of the table:

To turn borders and shading on and off for rows, columns, or cells, select the parts of the table whose format you want to modify, right-click, and then select Borders and Shading from the menu. Make the necessary changes in each tab of the dialog box.

If you’re using Word to prepare files for page-layout software, you can simply place the table at an appropriate location, in the line after the paragraph that cites the table. The publisher will figure out where to put it. If you need to actually create the layout, the Table tab of the Table Properties dialog box provides the necessary positioning options.

Tabling this discussion

Using Word’s table features can be frustrating, because authors have many innovative ways to mess up a table’s behavior. There are also bugs. For example, tables and revision tracking don’t always cooperate perfectly; sometimes it’s necessary to turn off revision tracking before modifying a table’s format. But the tips in this article will help you overcome most difficulties and use Word’s tables effectively.

Expert tip: If you need to reuse a table design, select the table and save it as a Quick Part (Word 2007) or as automatic text (Word 2011). First, select the table or part of the table you want to reuse. Next:

Expert tip: Forcing graphics to appear where you want them can be a trial in Word. To avoid the hassle, insert a one-cell table (for the graphic only) or a two-cell table (for the graphic and its caption). Next, copy the graphic and paste it into the table. The graphic will now move along with the table as you insert or delete paragraphs before the table. If necessary, right-click the graphic, and then select Format Picture from the menu to adjust the positioning options.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved