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Loyola University Chicago Libraries

Spreadsheet Therapy: Structuring workbooks

Principles of "data tidiness" to make spreadsheets easier to manage, use, and understand.

Structuring Workbooks

Workbook structure involves both the arrangement of data in individual tabs or sheets of a spreadsheet document, and how the data are allocated among different tabs. According to the principles of "tidy data," each tab should contain only one table, and each table should correspond to a single "observational unit" - ie, the data all pertain to a single experiment or type of thing.

Placing data tables on different sheets and giving them informative names can make it easier for you to find the data you're looking for, and makes it less likely that analyses will accidentally include stray cells. It also obviates the need for some visual tricks for conveying information about your data - such as text highlighting or blank rows and columns - that a computer would not be able to understand.

Sheet-level tips

  • Use only one row for column headers
  • Put each variable in its own column
    • Keep similar/related columns together
  • Put each observation/instance in its own row
  • Don't skip rows or columns
  • Don't rely highlighting, fonts, or colored text to encode meaning in your spreadsheet
    • Okay for helping you and other humans understand the data
    • If a machine needs to know about it, it needs to be represented by characters in a cell
  • Don't merge cells

Workbook-level tips

  • Use separate tabs/sheets for each table
    • Don't put multiple tables on the same tab
  • Use as few tabs as appropriate
    • Use multiple workbooks as necessary
  • Use separate tabs for different roles your data play in collection and analysis
    • eg, individual tabs for inputs, calculations, and results
  • If a lot of the data stays constant for each observation or measurement, consider laying out those relationships in a separate tab