The Art of the Spreadsheet. Copyright 2008 John F. Raffensperger

1. Why is spreadsheet style important?
2. Make your spreadsheet read from left to right and top to bottom.
3. Omit unneeded bytes.
4. Omit unneeded sheets.
5. Organize blocks with care.
6. Attend to blank space.
7. Omit unneeded cells.
8. Format with caution.
9. Show all the information.
10. Spreadsheet errors.
11. How to audit a spreadsheet.
12. Suggestions for operations researchers.
13. Teaching the art of the spreadsheet.
Appendix. Checklist for a spreadsheet.

3. Omit unneeded bytes.

“Write concisely” is a rule of writing that probably goes back to the early years when writing was on rock. More recently, Strunk and White wrote:

17. Omit needless words.

William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, third edition, 1979, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, p. 23.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Nicholas Higham gave a similar prescription for mathematical writing:

Nicholas J. Higham, Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences, 1993, SIAM, p. 25.

Otiose symbols

Do not use mathematical symbols unless they serve a purpose. In the sentence, “A symmetric positive definite matrix A has real eigenvalues” there is no need to name the matrix unless the name is used in a following sentence.

Hans Daellenbach (1994) wrote of mathematical modeling,

Hans G. Daellenbach, Systems and Decision Making, 1994, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chichester, England, p. 132.

William of Ockham, a 14th century English philosopher stated a useful heuristic rule: “Things should not be multiplied without good reason.” ... In terms of modeling it means that the modeler has to be highly selective in including aspects into a model. All aspects that are not absolutely essential or that contribute little to the 'accuracy' or 'predictive power' of the model should be excluded. A good model is a model that is as parsimonious as possible in terms of the variables/aspects included. In other words, it should be simple.

Edward Tufte (1983) wrote of graphics:

Tufte, Edward, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 1983, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Conn., pp. 55, 100., Ask E.T., Butterfly ballot, 4 May 2001.

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space...

On his web site, Tufte wrote,

It is much better in information design to say it once and say it right. Be careful of redundant signals; users may think you're saying something different with each different signal.

Just as a good editor of prose ruthlessly prunes out unnecessary words, so a designer of statistical graphics should prune out ink that fail to present fresh data-information.

Like a sentence, paragraph, drawing, or a machine, a spreadsheet should have no unnecessary parts. Ruthlessly eliminate formulas, labels, and formatting that do not directly focus on the flow of logic and the bottom line. If it does not directly contribute to clarifying your key point, it is textual, computational, and visual noise, and you should delete it. The adage “Keep it simple” could be restated “Keep it small.” Make every cell tell.

What is true for every other form of communication is novel for spreadsheets. In spreadsheets, verbosity is considered a virtue. The spreadsheet literature cited earlier had a list of things to include - heading, date, file name, author, etc. That common wisdom dictates that “complex formulas should be split into different cells.” This is generally bad advice.

A concise spreadsheet has high information density. Important cells are visually closer together, and can more easily be compared. The signal, the message that the writer wishes to transmit, is stronger. Unnecessary cells - noise - are eliminated. The spreadsheet is more compact.

As text is constructed from sentences and paragraphs, a spreadsheet is constructed from sheets, blocks, and cells with text or formulas. Next, we'll see how the rule of brevity applies to these elements, even to blank space.