Editing Tables: How-To Steps, Troubleshooting, and Tips

A well-edited table can add a lot to many publications, but editing tabular materials can be labour-intensive and frustrating. What I’ve learned is to look at the big picture, drill down into the details, then review against the context, and finally review against like elements. Here are some steps, trouble spots to watch for, and tips—for fellow editors and for authors (because authors sometimes wonder what the heck is happening and why):

  1. First skim the content to get an overview. What does the table present? Does the title of the table match the content of the table? Is any heading ambiguous? Does any content raise questions? Is the content of any cell incongruous? (For example, do all columns have numbers 0 to 99 except the third last, which has text?)
  2. What style for tables is to be applied? Whether you are working with the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), another established style, or creating your own, see how table titles, any table numbers, column heads (headings over each column), stub entries (in the stub or lefthand column, the entries for each row), columns, and rows are to be styled. Are there any spanner heads (headings that span 2 or more columns—also called decked heads)? Should the headings be sentence style (initial capital, as though for a sentence)? Within columns, should the cell contents be flush left, centred, or aligned on the decimal? If there is a unit of measurement (e.g., $ or %), is it given for each cell or given in the column head?
  3. Drill down into the details. Does the table add up? If there’s math involved, do the math. Check it again. If there are percentages, should the columns or rows add up to 100%? Do they? If there are totals, are they correct? If numbers are rounded, has that been noted? If the tabular material is not numerical, does the content make sense within the table? Is the meaning clear? Is it consistently presented?
  4. Are explanatory notes required below the table? Will the readership understand all the terms given? What style for notes is required—for example, superscript a, b, c, or asterisk, dagger, etc.?
  5. Is there a source given for the content and if not, should there be? Note also, if a source is given whether permission has been gained, if the material is adapted, and so on.
  6. Is the material focused and organized in a logical fashion? Does the table show only the subject described in the title or does it add extra information from a larger source table? For example, a table title is “Life expectancy for selected countries.” Does the table give this data only or did the author inadvertently add infant mortality rates as well? Are the selected countries organized by highest expectancy to lowest, alphabetical by country name, or grouped by continent? What organization does the author intend? What serves the reader?
  7. Review the content against the context. How does it relate to the text content nearby? Should the table appear where it does? Is it summarized or referred to in the text nearby and should it be? If it is summarized, does the summary match the table? Are the references to this table correct? For example, the data was updated recently, but does the text give the new year for the data and reflect the changed data?
  8. How does this table compare with others in the publication? In one additional pass, check the style and content of all like elements. It’s the easiest way to catch inconsistencies and overlap. For example, do the titles in Chapter 1 tables give as much information as those in Chapter 2? If there are two or more authors, have they unknowingly inserted the same (or similar) data in two different chapters?
© Laura Edlund 2010