Introduction to Excel
Ted Sherman and Padraic Cassidy
A spreadsheet is simply a grid of boxes, or cells, set up in rows and
columns. Every cell has a unique address, corresponding to its row and
column location. For example, the cell in the first column and first row
is A1. The cell in the third column and four row would be C4. The computer
can find its way around the spreadsheet by using those addresses, and perform
functions on the numbers you enter in those cells.
It sounds complicated, but it's not. Here is a typical blank spreadsheet
Basically, we can use this grid to add, subtract, multiply and divide
numbers. We can do percentages. Columns or rows can be sorted alphabetically,
or numerically. That makes a spreadsheet a powerful tool that will make
your life easier whenever you must deal with large blocks of information
If you have a large group of names, for example, a spreadsheet allows
you to sort them or keep track of them. If you have a budget or financial
data, the program can help you analyze the numbers.
We've used spreadsheets here at The Star-Ledger on budget stories, analyzing
state education numbers, looking at crime statistics, keeping track of
non-profit groups, an examination of speeding tickets, stories on payroll
padding and breaking down aviation safety data.
Some editors also use it as a management tool, including keeping track
of expenses and maintaining sortable lists of names and projects.
To keep things simple, we're going to look at a spreadsheet with just
a few columns and rows. With Excel Version 7, you actually have 16,000
rows and columns to play with.
To enter a number or other information, just click in a cell with your
left mouse. Let's start in cell A3 with some data from the Roseland municipal
Now go to cell B3 and enter numbers the same way. Don't worry about
putting in commas, percent signs or currency signs. We can format the whole
column after we're finished:
To format the column, click on the column header, which in this case
is the grey square with a B at the top. Click in the square with your left
mouse button and the entire column will be highlighted. Then go to the
top of the tool bar and click on Format, then click on Cells in the submenu,
and click on Number to format the numbers in the cells. Here, we will click
on Currency within the numbers submenu to put dollar signs and commas in
the appropriate places:
Once we do that, however, you see something has happened to the cells:
You get a #### in some of the cells. That's the program's way of telling
you the column isn't wide enough. To fix it, click and drag on the | between
B and C like we did earlier, and widen the column again.
Now let's add another column of numbers, again by simply clicking in
the cell and working down. We already have the 1997 budget figures. Let's
enter the 1996 numbers as a comparison:
Here's where we put the program to work. If you wanted to, you could
take a calculator and add up those columns yourself. You could then subtract
the difference between the two years of figures in each column, and get
an idea of where expenses are heading.
With Excel, the program will do it for you. Start by adding up each
column. Click in cell B9. What we want to do is tell the program what numbers
to add up. In Excel, we tell the computer we are about to enter a formula
by starting with an = sign. Remember, every cell has a unique address.
We want to add up cells B3, B4, and all the way to B8. We could do that
by entering the formula =B3+B4+B5+B6+B7+B8. That will work, but
it means entering a lot of numbers and the whole point of this program
is to save us work. So we can tell the program to simply add up the column
by entering =SUM(B3:B8) Another shortcut, and we love shortcuts,
is to click on the bottom of the column and then click on the Sigma, or
sign in the top toolbar. That will enter the formula for you. Just make
sure there isn't a data at the top of the column, or the date will be added
to your total.
Do the same in both columns, and you get totals. Add the years to the
top of the columns, to identify them. We can calculate the difference between
the two years the same way by entering a formula in Column D. Click on
D3. To subtract last year's Administration expenses from this year's, just
enter the formula: =B3-C3.
Once you enter the formula, you can repeat the formula for other rows
without retyping it by clicking in the cell. You can copy the formula and
the spreadsheet is smart enough to change the cell addresses automatically.
To copy the formula in D3, click on the cell. Then look for the small square
in the lower right corner of the cell border. This is called a Fill
Handle. Click on the square and hold, and the drag it down through
That tells us more than the town did when they gave us the budget,
but let's look at it further. What is the percentage increase or decrease
between the two years? Again, this is pretty simple to figure out. Enter
a formula in the next column the same way. A percentage is a simple ratio.
Here, we want to know the percentage increase, so the ratio would be the
difference between the two years, over what the budget number had been.
We've already calculated the difference in Column D. The budget figure
for the previous year had been the number in Column C. The percentage,
then, would be D3/C3. We format the box as a percentage, the same way we
formatted earlier as currency.
The next step is to pick out the area of greatest change. With a small
spreadsheet like this example, it's pretty easy. But what if there were
hundreds of numbers. Excel will handle that automatically with the sort
function. To use it, highlight all the rows and columns you want sorted.
Then click on Data in the top toolbar, and then Sort in the submenu. The
program will prompt you, asking what column you want sorted, and whether
it should be in ascending or descending order. Her, we will sort by Column
D to find who got the biggest spending increase last year:
Finally, there is one other tool in Excel's bag of tricks. You can
chart numbers. This could help in analysis because it graphically shows
you things you might miss if all you are doing is looking at numbers. This
is also pretty simple to do. Simply highlight the cells you want charted,
and then click on the upper toolbar on ChartWizard, a little icon that
has a chart on it. The program will then guide you though the making of
a chart. That's all there is to it. If we take this spreadsheet and chart
the numbers, here is what we get:
Some last pointers
Inserting columns. Click on the header where you want
a column to be inserted. Then go to Insert in the upper toolbar, Column
and presto, a Column appears. Do the same thing to put in a new row.
Saving your spreadsheet. Go to File in the upper toolbar.
Then Save As, name your spreadsheet and click OK
Printing. Go to File, Print Preview, and then check
how the spreadsheet looks. Then click on Print.