Should Writers Use Excel – Part 1

Should writers (or anyone else) use Microsoft Excel? In a word, YES!

What sort of tasks might one do in that spooky financial-y program? Royalty statements, tax expense summaries, submission tracking, Agent/Editor querying… All of these are pretty important, and Excel makes them easier, believe it or not.

However, before you do any of that, you need to know how to save your document and move around a spreadsheet. This was originally a single blog post, but when I got to 1o  pages, I realized this topic needed TWO posts, just so y’all don’t get bored.

Today – we’ll familiarize ourselves  with some Excel shortcuts. More can be found here.
Tomorrow – I’ll teach you formulas and some nitty-gritty uses for the program.

Note: For those of you familiar with the program already, read through Part 1 too so you can learn all the quick tips you don’t know. 🙂

Saving your Document

  • Ctrl + S (you don’t type the “+”), or Command + S on a Mac, will allow you to save any changes you’ve made to the file. There is a little picture of a blue disk on the left side of one of Excel’s toolbars – this is the Save icon.
  • The F12 key (all over Microsoft Office) is Save As… This key allows you to save a document as a new name. Very useful if you’re making edits to a manuscript. If you hit Save/Ctrl + S, you will lose the original document.
  • I usually hit F12 before I do almost anything else in both Word and Excel because I’ve lost my work sooo many times when I wasn’t paying attention. You will thank me for this F12 gift, I promise.

Moving Around Your Spreadsheet

Excel spreadsheets are made up of columns and rows. Where the columns and rows meet is called a Cell. These cells actually have names so that you can reference them in calculations or Formulas (covered tomorrow).

Columns and rows are listed in an orderly fashion:

  • Columns go across the page, left to right, as the letters in the alphabet
  • Rows go down the page, top to bottom, numerically.
  • Cells are labeled as A1, A2, A3, etc.

While you can absolutely use the arrow keys on your keyboard, the best way to move around your spreadsheet is this:

  • Right: Hit the Tab key
  • Left: Hit the Shift and Tab keys at the same time
  • Down: Hit the Enter key
  • Up: Hit the Shift and Enter keys at the same time

There are people reading this right now who are hissing at me for making things “too hard” with this Shift key business. Simmer down, all you hissers…I’d like everyone to do a little test:

  1. Open Excel (any version is fine) – go to Google Spreadsheets if you don’t have Excel.
  2. There will be a dark outline around cell A1 because that is the active cell.
  3. Use your arrow keys to move around – you will see the active cell border move and you can also see the cell name change in the name box (located up above Column A). A1, D4, G10. Go ahead, move all around. It’s kind of mesmerizing to watch that name box change.

    See that A1 - you can click on it and type to move too. Go on...type in D10 and hit know you want to!

  4. When you’re done, hit the CTRL key on your keyboard (Command key for a Mac) and the Home key at the same time. This is usually typed as Ctrl + Home. You will now be back at A1. This happens every time you type Ctrl + Home. (To all of you who used to use the arrow key 100 times to get to the top, you’re most welcome!)
  5. Next, take your mouse and highlight an area (try to get at least 3-4 cells in either direction).
  6. Start hitting your Tab key. Try Shift + Tab. Then the Enter/Shift+Enter combos. Fun, huh? You stay within the highlighted area, which is very cool.
  7. Hit any arrow key. Whoops! You just de-selected your highlighted cells, which is usually extremely annoying.

So, now that we can all sail around our spreadsheets and get back to cell A1, let’s look around a little more.

What if you want to “play with” your royalty statements?

Whether your statements come from a traditional publisher or from Amazon, you want to know how to manipulate your data in Excel.

  • You can enter data into each cell manually. (Not recommended for large amounts of data.)
  • You can copy and paste your data in.

Copy and paste works slightly different in Excel.

  • First of all, you only need to click on a single cell before you paste. It actually gums up the works if you highlight an area because you must be EXACT.
  • Second of all, Excel has an unfriendly relationship with the Clipboard (which is where your data is held when you choose “Cut” or “Copy” in any program). The Clipboard will only hold Excel’s data temporarily.When you Cut or Copy a cell in your spreadsheet, you will see big waving “disco lines” around that cell. It’s like Saturday Night Fever in your spreadsheet. If you choose Ctrl + V or right-click Paste, the disco lines remain active until you hit the Esc button on your keyboard.The shortcut around this is that you want to hit the Enter key to Paste in Excel. This pushes the data from the Clipboard to Excel and everyone is happy. This means that if you want to paste something into four different cells, you’ll choose Paste, Paste, Paste, ENTER.

OMG, I need separate months!

What about if you want to keep your monthly records separate, but you want to have the entire year or quarter together? I’ve seen people save a file for each month, making me shake my head in pity. If this is you, listen up.

I am giving you the Golden Gift of Tabs.

Yep, the way to keep separate data in the same file is to use what are called Sheet Tabs. They’re at the bottom of the screen on the left (see below).

Here’s some fun Sheet Facts:

  1. Sheet Tabs can be renamed by Double-clicking on the word “Sheet 1” and typing over it (there’s a limit of 31 characters in some versions of Excel). You can also Right-click and choose Rename.
  2. You can have tons of sheets but it gets hard to navigate between them UNLESS you right-click on the arrows to the far left side of the tabs. A right-click here brings up a list of sheet names and allows you to easily navigate between sheets.
  3. If you hold down the Ctrl button while dragging a sheet, you will copy the entire sheet (which you should then rename). This is AWESOME if you’ve done a lot of formatting and would like to duplicate it for the next sheet.
  4. The Ctrl button is also great if you want to format two (or more) different sheets at the same time. Yeah, you heard me…you can group these suckers and work on several at the same time. Be sure to Ungroup (the right-click menu will help) before you enter in data or you will overwrite the data on the other sheets in the Group.
  5. You know when sheets are Grouped because at the top of Excel in the Title Bar, you will see [Group] spelled just like I did it with square brackets.

Hey, I named Sheet 1!!!

OK, that should be enough to get you started if you’re new to the program. If you don’t have Excel on your computer, go to Google Spreadsheets – Google Docs will basically work the same and will allow you to practice.

Come back tomorrow, same time, same place for more info on why Writers Should Use Excel. In case you’re new here, I’m a software trainer by day so More Cowbell will always have at least one day a week dedicated to you and your training…it’s just the way I’m made.

Be sure to ask if there’s a topic that’s giving you trouble. We’ll either cover it in another Techie Tuesday post or tackle it during a Let’s Meet Up (for Training) Contest webinar.

Are you using Excel? If so, what do you use it for and what is giving you trouble? If you aren’t using Excel, why not and is there something you’d like to learn?

See you tomorrow for Part 2!


About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
This entry was posted in Techie Parts of Writing, Technology Fun and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Should Writers Use Excel – Part 1

  1. Linda Burke says:

    Thank you for providing info on Excel. I am registrar for a group and have to keep up with registrations for several activities. Is there a way to copy the information for each person registering (name, email) so I don’t have to re-type it on each activity page?


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hi Linda!

      I’m curious about where the name/phone info is coming from. You should be able to do a simple copy and paste in. There are times when I bring data into a Word table first, then copy that table into excel. However, most of the time, it’s pretty straightforward.

      One hint that might help. If you double-click on a cell, you go into edit mode. This will allow you to paste data in without having to work as hard for your formatting. Try this and see if it works. If not, leave another comment and we’ll go from there.


      • Linda Burke says:

        I receive emails with the registration information for several events. Many times, the person signs up for more than one event. What I would like to do is type one row and paste all the information on that row to another sheet.


        • Jenny Hansen says:


          Click on the number to the left of that row, choose copy, then go to the sheet where you want to add the data and Right-click on the number for THAT row. Choose “Insert Copied Cells” and it will slide that row right in where you want it.


  2. Jill Kemerer says:

    Fantastic post, Jenny!! I’m a total Microsoft Office nerd and love spreadsheets. You broke this down so well! I also love OneNote–it’s my new fave project tool. I keep everything for a project in there!


  3. Another speadsheet junkie here 🙂 Great break down Jenny.

    Janalyn Voigt (www DOT janalynvoigt DOT com) has a great spreadsheet for tracking deadlines, word count, submissions, social media/promotion, etc. It’s amazing and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

    I’m new to OneNote but loving it so far for keeping everything together.


  4. Linda Burke says:

    Wow. So simple. I thought I had tried that but evidently not.

    Many, many thanks.


  5. Great job, Jenny. I’ve used Excel but still feel like a newbie sometimes. I think I’m going to post this to my blog, just in case others can use it.


  6. Catie Rhodes says:

    I know that I need this, but my head is swimming. Thank you so much for taking the time to compile this. Even though I did time as a secretary in one of my past lives, I never learned Excel. I am going to print this and try to learn something. ::watch out::


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You’re so funny, Catie…you can do it, I promise!

      Print it out, open Excel, get some coffee or wine going and just walk through it. Feel free to leave a comment here if you come across something wacky. Linda did that and we got her all set up. 🙂


  7. Terry Odell says:

    I do use several spreadsheets. 1 for tracking daily word count, which required a very simple formula. The other which is critical for me is my character name tracker. Until I started using it, I ended up with umpteen characters with “M” names, and even had 3 named Hank.


  8. I am happily starting to use excel sheets for my planning. I still find that when I freewrite in a word doc better ideas come, but this could be step 1 and excel sheet planning step 2.

    Also, weird sidenote, I’ve noticed that I have 3 characters whose name starts with “M”. I might need to look into/change that….Why are we drawn to “M” names I wonder?


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I think the “M” is universally popular because we grow up with our Moms (and some people also grow up with the Blessed Virgin Mary). When you think of all the Margaret, Mary, Marie, Marnie, Maggie, Maureen and Mandy’s we have in our world it is truly astonishing. 🙂

      Your planning sheet sounds very fun, Nicole!


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  11. amyshojai says:

    I am soooooooo saving this. Currently I use this for my income/tax records and (hanging head with guilt) have a different page for each year when I could be using tabs. Mea culpa! I will learn…

    Even old dogs~~yada yada yada.


  12. I love your techie short-cut blogs! I’m an excel addict – I guess that’s the former executive assistant in me. 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That’s great, Tiff. As an addict you likely knew most of the tricks from these first few posts. Hopefully next Tuesday’s Excel post will give you a few new tricks. 🙂

      p.s. I too am a former, former executive assistant!


  13. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on Excel. Thanks for the excellent refresher.


  14. Once in a while, I do like when I’m playing writing games or when I’m taking notes about my characters. More often than not, I forego this wonderful program. I’m a pantser and I haven’t sent queries yet.


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