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5 favourite Excel tips

MicrosoftWhether you're using Microsoft Excel 2008 or 2004, you need some tricks up your sleeve for easing day-to-day tasks, such as entering data or custom sorting, as well as for special situations, such as using colours not included on the Standard palette.

Here are my five favourite Excel tips for everyday use and beyond.

1. Customise sort orders

When it comes to sorting data, Excel provides several standard sort options for numbers, dates, text and so on. But sometimes you need something beyond the built-in choices. For instance, you may prefer to organise your expenditures by season, with summer listed first, instead of the alphabetical autumn, spring, summer, winter. You can do this by creating a custom sort list.

Enter the items in contiguous cells in the order you want, and select those cells. Choose Excel, Preferences and go to Custom Lists; click on Import and then click on OK. (This is much quicker than creating a list from within the Custom List preference pane.) To use your custom sort order, select the column or area you want sorted and choose Data, Sort. Click on Options in the Sort dialog box, and select your custom list from the pull-down menu.

If you're using an Excel 2008 AutoFilter on the column (the double arrows next to the column header), you won't find your custom sort included in its menu. However, once you've applied a custom sort to a column, selecting either the Sort Ascending or Sort Descending command in the AutoFilter menu does invoke the custom list.

2. Constrain keyboard cell selection

When you're entering data, speed is everything. Say you're typing information into a three-by-ten block of cells. Going from the last cell in one row or column to the first cell of the next usually requires selecting that cell with your mouse, or using several key presses to navigate to it.

Here's a simple time-saver: Select the block of cells by dragging across them before you start entering data. Use the Tab key to move across a row or the Return key to move down a column; when you reach the edge of the block, press that key again to jump to the beginning of the next row or column. You can also use Shift-Tab and Shift-Return to move backward and jump to the previous row or column when you reach the edge of the selection.

3. Force a line break in a cell

Ever have a string of text spill out of one cell into the next? You already know that you can prevent that by formatting the cell for text wrapping (choose Format, Cells, click on the Alignment tab, and check the Wrap Text box). But that doesn't mean your text will break where you want it to: Goals for 1st Quarter might end up as Goals for 1st / Quarter instead of the preferable Goals for / 1st Quarter. The solution is simple: To force text to break at the spot you want - whether or not you've enabled text wrap - click where you want to split the line and press Control-Option-Return.

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