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Sloppy Spreadsheets: Readers Speak Out

Readers make some pointed additions to CFO.com's "worst practices" list.

This fall, I am preparing a set of spreadsheet requirements to reverse this trend.

In addition to properly naming the spreadsheet file, giving each tab a descriptive header and footer, ensuring descriptive labels are placed on key rows and columns, the two additional best practices here are a) to print/preview the spreadsheet before sending it, adjusting page breaks so it paginates well, and b) to ensure that column and row headers appear on each page if the tab is to print over multiple pages. Getting column and rows to appear on multiple pages is performed in “Page Layout/Print Titles” commands on the top of an Excel spreadsheet.

To CFO.com:

I have seen a couple of users writing long [comments], broken over many cells. When you re-size or copy over, many text characters get dropped . . . Perhaps it is a popular form in some companies’ cultures, because many such users [I observed] were from the same company. —Raj K. Bhutani

From Richard Block: There is nothing more annoying, Raj, than dealing with a long comment typed into a spreadsheet cell. It can have twin negative effects: Comments often block data in adjoining cells, and also may cause printing or pagination problems.

The best practice for adding comments to a spreadsheet is either to label well the specific columns or rows being described, or to add a comment using the “Review/New Comment” command on the top of the Excel spreadsheet. Once a comment is added, a small triangle will appear in the right top corner of the cell. The comment will only be visible when the cursor moves over the cell.

From Janice Bell: It is common to want to provide comments on items included in your spreadsheet. But placing comments in the rows below the calculation area, or in a column beside the cell that requires explanation, can cause the information to spill across many columns, because Excel isn’t a word processor and doesn’t wrap the text. (You can wrap the text by going to the Format command tab, select Format Cells, Alignment, and click Wrap Text.)

If I am sending a spreadsheet to someone who will print the spreadsheet for reproduction, I try to follow an “endnote” procedure. In the title to the spreadsheet or in each column or row where I have a comment, I place numbers corresponding to an endnote such as (1). I then use a separate sheet for all my endnotes, and label the sheet name, “Endnotes.” I type in this sheet much like a word processor. Since I cannot spell, I copy the material that I type there and paste it to Microsoft Word, make corrections and then recopy to this section.

Editor’s Note: To illustrate some of the worst-practices in these reader suggestions, Richard Block devised this before-and-after treatment of financial information detailing sales growth and projected sales growth for three products to two customers. In Tab 1, (Customer Production Sales Analysis A) column headings and tab headings are not present; comments are unclear, cumbersome, poorly formatted, and run off the visible page; and when printed are even worse. In Tab 2 (Customer Production Sales Analysis B), column headings and tab headings are present; the information is crisp and easy to grasp; and intermediary computations help the reader follow development of the data, so comments can be focused. The printing is easy, with Tab 2 already properly formatted, and with an appropriate header and footer.

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