Spreadsheets for Poets

January 21, 2010

Spreadsheets have many, many uses besides financial recordkeeping.  But lots of  people who lack business training are intimidated by all those columns and rows, and have never experienced the many ways spreadsheets can make life easier.  If that describes you, check out  Google docs spreadsheets– easy enough for English majors.

Not so long ago,  many people thought of spreadsheets as something for accountants, used mainly for toting up profit and loss.  But spreadsheets are really just a way of keeping track of information –any kind of information, words as well as numbers–  organizing that information into categories  and displaying  it in –yes– columns and rows so it’s easy to read and understand.

If you are someone who finds the very word spreadsheet intimidating,  take heart:  spreadsheet basics are easy to learn and knowing  even the basics opens many new possibilities for keeping track of  things  in your organization, business and personal life.

It’s especially easy to make spreadsheets in Google docs and because, like all Google docs,  these spreadsheets can easily be shared, they have a myriad of uses, including  –but hardly limited to– tracking projects, keeping membership records and logging event rsvps. (And, of course, Google docs spreadsheets can also be used for financial reporting of all kinds.)

Here’s how to make and start using a Google docs spreadsheet in ten minutes or less:

  • Think of some group of  “things” you want to keep track of and some feature about each “thing”  you also need to remember:  all the articles for your next newsletter and who is going to write each one,  all  the invoices you sent this month and their due dates,  all the grants you plan to apply for  and  the funding agency for each.  Whatever.
  • Open Google docs  and go to File > Create New > Spreadsheet . Click.  There! You’ve got a spreadsheet– or at least the skeleton of one.
  • Click  on “Unsaved Spreadsheet” next to the Google docs logo. Give your spreadsheet a name in the box that opens. OK!  Now you’ve  named  and started saving your spreadsheet.
  • Click on  the empty space right under the “A”  at the top of  the first column (columns go up-and-down) and type in  a word or two that describes the “things”  you want to keep track of in this spreadsheet (“Article” or “Invoice” or “Grant”).  Hit “Enter”
  • Click under “B” in the next column and enter the information type you want to record for each “thing” (“Writer”or “Due Date”or “Funder”).
  • Each numbered row (rows go across)  is used for recording everything you want to know about  one particular “thing.”  So in the first row,  click on the empty space  in the “A” column and enter the name of  your first specific “thing” (“Article about Spreadsheets”). Then  enter the relevant information about that thing in column “B” (such as: “Ozmos M.” in the “Writer” column) Repeat for Thing  Two in  row two … and so on  until you’ve run out of  “things.”
  • That’s it!  Done.

Later, if you want, you can add additional columns with other information related to your “things” (“Photos for Articles”/”Overdue Date”/”Funder website”)or you can add new items in additional rows.

One of the most useful features of spreadsheets is that you can “sort” your information in various ways: In Google docs spreadsheets, place your cursor in the grey bar under the column you want to sort alphabetically (or, if the column contains numbers instead of text, numerically. ) Click on the arrow that appears and choose whether to sort  “A-Z”  or “Z-A” (for numbers, “A-Z” means “from smallest to biggest” and …you get it.) The spreadsheet will then reshuffle itself.   Try it to see what I mean. (To go back to the original “sort”, just click on the name for the “A” column.)

You can insert new columns and rows in between existing columns and rows (check the “insert” menu). You can also change the colors, fonts and other formatting on your spreadsheet, add and subtract columns of numbers and lots more. Go ahead and explore.

When you have everything just the way you want it, you can “share” your spreadsheet just like any other Google Doc. (Start by clicking  the “share” button at the top right of your spreadsheet.)

Google docs also has another remarkably cool spreadsheet feature: When you create a “Form” in Google docs,  a  matched spreadsheet is automatically created  for you. Every time someone fills out the form, the results are automatically entered in your spreadsheet.   The details are a subject for another day….but now you know the secret: spreadsheets aren’t just for financial wizards– they can do work  for you, too.

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