This is a perfect week for geeking out about tables. Not the flat surfaces we use for everything from sharing a meal to catching the stuff that accumulates in a front entry.
Tables that make you think. The kind of table that helps writers find flaws and fill gaps in their thinking. And that helps readers visualize complex relationships among important details.
Tables: Tools for Thinking
This year is the 150thanniversary of a table that transformed how scientists think about chemistry. Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table helped scientists discover relationships among the elements that make up all matter. It also helped them predict the existence of previously unknown elements.
Tables: Tools for Doing
Tables aren’t just for thinking. They are also great tools for getting things done. For example, when printers still set type by hand, the California Job Case improved the speed and accuracy of grabbing each letter. Every slot in the case was assigned to specific letters and numbers. Every case used the same grid.
The more common letters were assigned to the bigger spaces within easy reach of the typesetter’s grasp. Some experts suggest these cases reduced a typesetter’s hand movements by more than half a mile per day. The cases also made it possible for typesetters to travel to where printing was needed. We might think of them as early laptops.
The California Type Case that sits next to my desk holds business cards and paper clips. And my laser printer, for a slightly ironic touch. My father-in-law turned this old type case into a table, adding legs to one of a hundred or so cases he once used in the family printing business.
30-Second Edit: Tables
The Flag: Grey areas that require thinking
This is an easy squint. Take a few seconds to look through your draft for areas where readers will see dense sections of writing.
These grey areas are a flag. Are you asking readers to do thinking that you, the writer, should have done for them? For example, look for:
- a paragraph that contains three or more types of information
- several paragraphs that introduce complex details under one subheading
- lists that combine several types of information
The Fix: White space to aid thinking
Take a closer look at those grey areas. Watch for places where readers might want to write their own lists or even draw a table. That’s an opportunity to build a table that gives readers a more efficient way to think about the details.
The fix will take longer than 30 seconds. That’s because it requires thinking. But if you do the thinking, readers won’t have to send you a long email asking the question they would have known the answer to if only they had bothered to read the four paragraphs in which you discuss the options.
Here’s an example. In my previous blog post, I included a list that was too complicated. Here’s the list:
- a summary of decisions, dollars and dates: 1 page or 10% of total word count
- headings that capture content: 3 to 5 words; 2 or 3 per page
- paragraphs that focus on one topic: 3 to 5 sentences; 3 to 5 paragraphs per section
- point-form lists: 6 or 7 items maximum
- tables for comparing and connecting 2 or 3 types of information
- apendices for relevant background information
It’s a little too grey. There are at least three types of information and not nearly enough white space for many readers. Imagine trying to read a whole paragraph on the topic.
A table takes care of those problems. It also allows me to add words that would have made the list impossible to read.
Tables make readers look and feel smarter than they probably are. That’s because you, dear writer, have done most of the thinking for them. Without being too obvious about it, of course.
The bonus for readers? They can take your brilliant report to their next meeting and focus on three reasons for choosing Option 4. All they have to do is glance at the table you provided.
BONUS: Rediscover the Periodic Table
Has it been too long since you thought about the difference between bismuth and polonium? It has been, hasn’t it? Here’s a link to Bloomburg Businessweek Magazine’s terrific issue on the period table. Enjoy!