Printing (About)

Now that I’ve spent some time talking about how to adjust column widths for maximum readability when printed, I’d like to address how to print exactly what you want to print, how you want to print it.

I’m not going to go over where the print button is or what it looks like – I figure most people can figure that out on their own, or look it up elsewhere. I’m also not going to cover most of the various page setup option that you’ll also find in any word processor (margins, orientation, page numbering, page headers/footers, etc.). Instead, this week I’m going to discuss common problems with printing spreadsheets, and their solutions, and then over the next few weeks I’m going to explain how to do the solutions.

If you’re used to working in a word processor, such as Microsoft Word, you’re probably used to being in a WYSIWYG environment: What you see is what you get. That is to say, when you print it out it’ll look pretty much exactly the way it does on the screen.

That’s because word processors are designed around the belief that the document will eventually be printed. By default the text is shown in a space designed to mimic a standard page size (8.5×11 in the US), with reasonable margins (usually between 1 and 1.5 inches, depending on how old it is). Spreadsheets, on the other hand, were at least partially developed with an eye towards freeing accountants from the size constraints of a ledger book. The calculation was considered more important than the layout and appearance.

Therefore, as you scroll through a spreadsheet you won’t see any indication of where the edges of the printed page would be. Once you print, though, it will just shove any extra columns or rows off onto another sheet. If your table is just barely too wide you could end up with a second page that has only one column printed on it. If your table is just barely too long you could end up with a second page that has only one row printed on it. And if your table is both too long and too wide, you could end up with one page with most of the columns & rows, one page with just (most of) the last column, one page with just (most of) the last single row, and one page with just one cell (the intersection of the last row and last column). That’s a total of four pages which together aren’t half as effective as the same table on a single page would be.

Furthermore, most spreadsheets display lines around the cells whether you’ve set up borders or not. However, these
lines aren’t printed, so it can be hard to predict exactly how readable it will end up being.

So the first step in producing a printout that looks the way you want it to is to look at how it will appear once printed. Almost every spreadsheet program has some sort of option for previewing how the printed document will look. So do that (I’ll explain how next week), and then take whatever steps are needed to fix any problems that you see, as outlined in the tale below.

Printout problem Possible solutions
Hard to follow Add or remove borders
Add or remove shading
A little too wide Shrink the font (manually or automatically), and/or adjust column width
Use “Fit on one page” option
A little too tall Shrink the font, and/or adjust row height.
Remove text wrapping and/or adjust column width.
Use “Fit on one page” option
A lot too wide/tall Divide the table into multiple tables.
Use “repeat table headers” option.
Includes unwanted information Copy table to its own sheet.
Use “print area” option.
Needs stuff from multiple worksheets? Select multiple worksheets as “active”.
Create auto-updating copies on a single workseet.

All the solutions that don’t have links are the ones I’ll be covering over the next few weeks.