Sorting vs. Filtering: How to choose

So, now that you know about both sorting and filtering — how do you choose which to do? After all, they produce similar results in a way.

The simplest answer is generally, “Whichever you want.” I personally use filtering so rarely that it was only in the process of writing out these posts that I realized “Hey, filtering is kind of like a simpler sorting for some purposes — I should explain that, too!”

However, there are things that one or the other is better for, and sometimes you might want to combine them.
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Sorting: Basic how-to

Sooner or later, if you have a list of things in a spreadsheet, you’re probably going to find yourself wanting to sort it. In its simplest form, sorting a spreadsheet is like organizing a bookshelf or closet. Sure, if you’ve only got a few things there’s no real need for it. But if you have a lot of things and actually want to be able to find any particular item, then sorting is essential.

In the book inventory example, maybe you found a stray Bujold book halfway through entering the McCaffery ones, and you’d kind of like it to be with the others by the same author. Or, heavens forbid, you actually buy more books! You could find the “proper” place for each book in the inventory, insert a row, and enter it there… or you could just enter them at the bottom and sort the whole thing. Maybe it’s currently organized by author, but you want to re-organize it by genre. The list of possible reasons could go on and on.

Regardless of the reason, the details of how to do it depend, as always, on the program you’re using.
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Filtering: Basic How-To

If you have an inventory or other detailed list in a spreadsheet, chances are that sooner or later you’ll want part of the list, and not the rest. Looking at the example of the book inventory, imagine that there was a sale on a particular publisher’s books, or that you wanted to get a list of all the books you own by a particular author. Most spreadsheet programs make it easy to do this, by letting you filter your list to show only what you want it to show.

As a side effect, the filtering dialog can tell you what all the unique entries in a given column are. For example, if you had 30 books by “Robb, J.D.”, and 50 books by “Roberts, Nora”, then , it might be hard to spot that you also have 1 book by “Robbins, Alan” tucked in between them. However, when you open the filter dialog you only see one entry for each author, so “Robb, J.D.”, “Robbins, Alan”, and “Roberts, Nora” all appear exactly once.

Or let’s say that you’re looking at a Regency romance novel, and want to enter it, but don’t remember how you’ve entered other Regency romances. Did you just say “Regency”? How about “Historical romance”? Or maybe “Romance, Historical”? The filtering dialog lets you quickly scan through all of genres you’ve previously entered. It also lets you spot when you might have put something in two different ways, or mis-typed an entry (Fantsay instead of Fantasy, for example).

Of course, the details of how to filter depend on which program you’re using.
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