Designing Documents: Using Tables
Updated Jun 2022
Tables should summarize and present the numerical data answering the research questions, objectives or problem statements of a report or article. Table styles vary across publications but remain consistent within a publication. Follow the publication's style manual for developing tables. To learn more, explore each page below:
- Parts of a Table
- Targeting to Readers
- Setting Up Your Table
- Research Findings
- Commonly Asked Questions
Parts of a Table
Review the style guidelines across style manuals and you'll find a convention that names key parts of Tables. Keep in mind that publications differ. For example, The Chicago manual of style, CBE style manual, and the Publication manual of the American Psychological Association use few divider rules. In contrast, engineering publications often use divider and vertical rules to separate each cell.
The key parts of the Tables include
- Title number and title
- Divider rules
- Spanner heads
- Stub heads
- Column heads
- Row titles
Targeting to Readers
When you consider using Tables in your document, ask,
- Are readers familiar with Tables?
- Do the readers have a statistics background?
- Will your readers understand the abbreviations you're using?
- Do readers have a general knowledge of your topic?
- Can readers interpret the data?
- Will readers make the same interpretation of your data?
Setting Up Your Table
Your research questions, objectives, or problem statements can help you design your Table. The question that you set out to answer directs the data you collect, the analysis you should conduct, and the format you use for your Table.
Assume your project was exploring the computer expertise of three groups of students and wanted to know a significant difference exists in the computer experience and expertise of the groups?
Assume you surveyed students and knew the average number of months of computer experience by type of computer. You could then compare, in a Table, using rows for the type of computers, and columns for group of students.
Average Number of Months of Computer Experience
While the above represents a general data and where the data should be placed, it does not represent the final format of the Table.
Before you begin to prepare Tables, carefully consider your purpose and style. Consistency plays a key role for all Tables. The following general guidelines will serve as a starting point, but some style manuals and some instructors disagree and may want Tables presented differently.
Consider the following general guidelines:
- Follow the publication's style or instructor's guidelines for Tables
- Place titles above Tables
- Write complete descriptive titles
- Limit divider rules
- Avoid broadside tables--don't make your readers turn the page sideways
- Break up large tables into smaller Tables to fit the page
- Use Arabic numbers for Tables
- Use double number for Tables within chapters: Table 1-1 for the first Table in Chapter 1
- Place Tables on separate pages at the end of the document
- Indicate units in column heads
- Report the sample size
- Place a zero or dash in empty cells--i.e., cells for which you have no data
- Use clear typefaces to maintain print legibility
- Provide footnotes describing abbreviations
While the research on Tables is limited, Macdonald-Ross (1977a, 1977b) reviewed decades of research on illustrations and summarized the findings. His recommendations include:
- Round numbers to two significant digits
- Provide averages in both rows and columns
- Organize the rows or columns based on what you want to emphasize
- Order rows to help readers compare data
- Avoid spacing out to fill a page
Commonly Asked Questions
If you aren't accustomed to working with tables, you may feel uncertain about how to incorporate tables into your writing. A good place to learn about tables is in journals and other publications. You should also investigate the style guides used in your field. Many organizations produce these guides to help you properly include tables into your documents. To read answers to some common questions, choose any of the items below:
Should tables replace text?
It's typically easier to look at a Table than to read through numerical data listed in paragraphs. This does not mean, however, that Tables should replace text. You should not simply say, "The data can be seen in Tables 1 through 9." Instead, the primary role of a Table isn't to replace, but rather to enhance your narrative.
How are tables and text related?
The role of a Table is to reinforce your data and to make the data easier to understand. Stating information in words gives readers the general idea but seeing it in a Table form makes it clearer. At the same time, the information you convey in your text also supports your Table. Don’t just write that the data can be seen in the Table. Tell your readers what the Table depicts.
How many tables should I use?
Generally, having more rather than fewer Tables is desirable. However, if the Tables aren’t adding anything, don’t put them in, but you can always find opportunities where Tables will help. Remember, you can always place less important Tables in an Appendix.
Where should tables appear in the text?
Ideally, Tables should appear on the same page, immediately following or adjacent to the first instance when you mention the table in your text. When you write, "See Table One," your readers should be able to easily locate the Table. Also, your readers will appreciate not having to turn pages and hunt for a table. Advances in word processing and desktop publishing software make it relatively easy to insert Tables within the text itself. If it isn't possible to fit a Table onto the page immediately following or adjacent to its first mention in the text, then you should place the Table on the next page.
What should tables look like?
Tables should be clear, and captions should be large enough to be read. Many readers prefer that bold symbols be used to represent data. Also, all lettering and numbering should be large enough to easily read and you should use a mix of bold and lighter lines.
How large should tables be?
Unless they are extremely complex, tables should not take up an entire page. They should be of a size that allows them to be inserted on the page where the table is first mentioned. However, they should not be so small that they are difficult to read.
Zimmerman, Don, & Gregory Thayer. (1997). Designing Documents: Using Tables. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=41