Organizing Information in Tables - AMA Manual of Style

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Organizing Information in Tables 

Visual Presentation of Data

Stacy Christiansen

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PRINTED FROM AMA MANUAL OF STYLE ONLINE ( © American Medical Association, 2009. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the license agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in AMA Manual of Style Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).  Subscriber: null; date: 25 November 2015

Organizing Information in Tables

For a table to have maximum effectiveness, the information it contains must be arranged logically and clearly so that the reader can quickly understand the key point and find the specific data of interest. Information in tables should be organized into columns and rows by type and category, thereby simplifying access and display of data and information.

During the planning and creation of a table, the author should consider the primary comparisons of interest. Because the English language is read first horizontally (from left to right) and then vertically (from top to bottom), the primary comparisons should be shown horizontally across the table. Data that depict cause-and-effect or before-and-after relationships should be arranged from left to right if space allows or, alternatively, from top to bottom. Information being compared (such as numerical data) should be juxtaposed within adjacent rows or adjacent columns to facilitate comparisons among items of interest. The tables in Example T4 present the same information. Note that the second table more easily allows the reader to compare the changes over time, which is the primary outcome of interest.

Example T4 The first table is formatted with the primary comparison—years of study—running vertically (especially evident in reading the first row across). The second table is formatted with the primary outcome running horizontally.

Although tables frequently are used to present many quantitative values, authors should remember that tabulating all collected study data is unnecessary and actually may distract and overwhelm the reader. Data presented in a table should be pertinent and meaningful.

The length of the table should also be considered. For ease of reading and practical reasons, a table that would span horizontally or run vertically onto a second page should, if possible, be recast into 2 or more smaller tables. If this is not possible, the table may be set in smaller type. Another option is to publish the table in electronic form only, with a note in the print publication, but the same difficulty with reading large tables in print occurs online as well. In general, tables in print publications can, depending on the content, contain up to 9 or 10 columns of data (including the first column, or stub). Cells that contain words will be wider, thereby reducing the number of columns that will fit.

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