Creating a Basic Excel Worksheet

When you first launch Excel, it starts you off with a new, blank worksheet, as shown in Figure 1.

A worksheet is the grid of cells where you type your information and formulas; it takes up most of the window. This grid is the most important part of the Excel window. It's where you'll perform all your work, such as entering data, writing formulas, and reviewing the results. Here are a few basics about Excel's grid:

  • The grid divides your worksheet into rows and columns. Columns are identified with letters (A, B, C…), while rows are identified with numbers (1, 2, 3…).
  • The smallest unit in your worksheet is the cell. Cells are identified by column and row. For example, C6 is the address of a cell in column C (the third column), and row 6 (the sixth row). Incidentally, an Excel cell can hold up to 32,000 characters.
  • A worksheet can span an eye-popping 16,000 columns and 1 million rows. In the unlikely case that you want to go beyond those limits say you're tracking blades of grass on the White House lawn you'll need to create a new work sheet. Every spreadsheet file can hold a virtually unlimited number of worksheets.
  • When you enter information, you enter it one cell at a time. However, you don't have to follow any set order. For example, you can start by typing information into cell A40 without worrying about filling any data in the cells that appear in the earlier rows.

The best way to get a feel for Excel is to dive right in and start putting together a worksheet. The following sections cover each step that goes into assembling a simple worksheet. This one tracks household expenses, but you can use the same approach to create any basic worksheet.

Starting a New Workbook

When you fire up Excel, it opens a fresh workbook file. If you've already got Excel open and you want to create another workbook, just select Office button New. This step pops up the New Workbook window that's shown in Figure 2.

You don't need to pick the file name for your workbook when you first create it. Instead, that decision happens later, when you save your workbook. For now, you start with a blank canvas that's ready to receive your numerical insights.

Adding the Column Titles

The most straightforward way to create a worksheet is to design it as a table with headings for each column. It's important to remember that even for the simplest worksheet, the decisions you make about what's going to go in each column can have a big effect on how easy it is to manipulate your information.

For example, in a worksheet that stores a mailing list, you could have two columns: one for names and another for addresses. But if you create more than two columns, your life will probably be easier since you can separate first names from street addresses from Zip codes, and so on.

You can, of course, always add or remove columns later. But you can avoid getting gray hairs by starting a worksheet with all the columns you think you'll need. The first step in creating your worksheet is to add your headings in the row of cells at the top of the worksheet (row 1).

Technically, you don't need to start right in the first row, but unless you want to add more information before your table like a title for the chart or today's date there's no point in wasting the space.

Adding information is easy just click the cell you want and start typing. When you're finished, hit Tab to complete your entry and move to the next cell to the right (or Enter to head to the cell just underneath).

For a simple expense worksheet designed to keep a record of your most prudent and extravagant purchases, try the following three headings:

  • Date Purchased stores the date when you spent the money.
  • Item stores the name of the product that you bought.
  • Price records how much it cost.

Right away, you face your first glitch: awkwardly crowded text.

Adding Data

You can now begin adding your data: simply fill in the rows under the column titles. Each row in the expense worksheet represents a separate purchase that you've made. (If you're familiar with databases, you can think of each row as a separate record.)

As Figure 3 shows, the first column is for dates, the second column is for text, and the third column holds numbers. Keep in mind that Excel doesn't impose any rules on what you type, so you're free to put text in the Price column.

But if you don't keep a consistent kind of data in each column, you won't be able to easily analyze (or understand) your information later. That's it. You've created a living, breathing worksheet. The next two sections explain how to edit data and move around the grid.

Editing Data

Every time you start typing in a cell, Excel erases any existing content in that cell. (You can also quickly remove the contents of a cell by just moving to it and pressing Delete.) If you want to edit cell data instead of replacing it, you need to put the cell in edit mode, like this:

  1. Move to the cell you want to edit. Use the mouse or the arrow keys to get to the correct cell.
  2. Put the cell in edit mode by pressing F2. Edit mode looks almost the same as ordinary text entry mode. The only difference is that you can use the arrow keys to move through the text you're typing and make changes. (When you aren't in edit mode, pressing these keys just moves you to another cell.) If you don't want to use F2, you can also get a cell into edit mode by double-clicking it.
  3. Complete your edit. Once you've modified the cell content, press Enter to commit your change or Esc to cancel your edit and leave the old value in the cell. Alternatively, you can turn off edit mode (press F2 again), and then move to a new cell. As long as you stay in edit mode, Excel won't let you move to another cell.