Many people have to learn just enough about Microsoft Excel to get by on the job. As a result, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve greeted the news that they need to learn to create spreadsheets with all the enthusiasm they’d have for a job scraping chewing gum off the sidewalk in front of a school. Is a spreadsheet really an alien minefield filled with toxic waste? Can a book explain Microsoft Excel in terms that make it not only easy to understand but easy to use? Microsoft Excel 2010 Step By Step was written for that purpose. Let’s take a look and see how well the author - Curtis D. Frye - succeeded.
Steps to Success, Or At Least That’s the Plan
As those of you who’ve read my reviews know, I am a fan of the Step By Step series. I like the approach of tackling difficult subjects one small step at a time. I began reading this book with a basic knowledge of how Microsoft Excel works, but not much more, and hoped to pick up more skills as I went along.
As with all the books in this series, there is an introduction that gives the reader a brief overview of the program, and a summary of the things that have changed in this version of the program. People who have used Microsoft Excel 2007 will probably be familiar with most of these features. Those who are beginners or have only used earlier editions may find the explanation of the new commands more confusing than helpful because the author used such technical language. He also starts out by talking about things like sparklines, slicers and pivot tables. Hello? Let’s get the basic concepts down first and then worry about the advanced topics. People who want a step by step approach to learning a program want to begin at the beginning. Microsoft did extensive usability studies before releasing Microsoft Excel 2010, with the goal of making it more user-friendly and more logically laid out. The introduction goes into quite a bit of detail about the changes to all kinds of things I never heard of. Quite frankly, instead of wasting pages on these things, the author should have provided a link to a list on the Microsoft web site for anyone who might be interested. A beginner or person with only basic knowledge won’t know what these things are, and a person advanced enough to recognize them isn’t going to be reading a Step By Step book.
This section is also marred, in my opinion, by the author’s writing style. He says things like: "With PivotTables, users can summarize large data sets efficiently, such as by rearranging values dynamically to emphasize different aspects of the data. It’s often useful to be able to limit the data that appears in a PivotTable, so the Excel team included the functionality for users to filter Pivot Tables." And that’s from the introduction. It serves as a warning for what lies ahead.
And So It Begins
After more than 40 pages of introductory material, the book finally gets down to the business of using Microsoft Excel 2010. It advises people to save their work frequently, with no mention of Microsoft Excel’s built-in AutoRecover function. AutoRecover is something everyone should know about. Whatever it’s named, it saves your work every few minutes so you don’t lose much, if anything, if something crashes. There are practice files available to be used with the book, and the author clearly thinks the exercises that use these files are self-explanatory. He talks about Document Properties, for example, and then directs the reader to fill in several keywords on the practice file. Why these particular terms? No explanation. The "Setting Up a Workbook" chapter ends with an extensive section on customizing Microsoft Excel 2010 to suit your own preferences.There was a section in the introductory chapter that dealt with customizing the Ribbon. All the material about ways to make the program suit one’s own preferences should have been placed in a separate "Customizing" chapter. Who would look in a chapter called "Setting Up a Workbook" for instructions for customizing Microsoft Excel 2010 as a whole?
Data, Data Entry and Tables
The section on data entry includes information about helpful tools like AutoFill, FilllSeries and AutoComplete, but fails to note simple things like what happens when you press Enter or Tab after entering a single value. The AutoFill Options menu items are explained in "tech-ese" instead of plain English. Doing the exercise with the practice file could have helped to clarify what’s going on, if the exercise had not been so perfunctory. Again, an experienced user would have had no problem going through this quickly, but a beginner would almost certainly want more in the way of explanation and practice, and for a book ostensibly aimed at beginners, this is just another in a long list of failures. The sections on moving data and finding and replacing data are a little better, and the practice files seem to actually be helpful. Paste Live Preview is an extremely useful new feature and it’s explained pretty well. Unfortunately, this is a rare example of straightforward explanation. The section on creating tables takes a fairly easy-to-understand concept and manages to bury it under an avalanche of words. First you do this, then you do that, and oh, if you do this it also does this and if you didn’t mean to do this you fix it and... you get the idea. By this point in the book the "step by step" concept has vanished somewhere in outer space.
Calculations, Not So Plain and Simple
The primary purpose of a spreadsheet is to do calculations on rows and columns of numbers. To do this, you need to know how to enter formulas properly in cells, and to tell the formulas which cells you want to calculate. The way those things are entered is not particularly intuitive for the beginner, and understanding how it all works is essential for success. All I can say is, I’m glad I already know how to do this. Trying to figure it out from these instructions would require a lot more dedication than I can muster up. Here’s a sample explanation: "When you click a named range, Excel displays the cells it encompasses in the Refers To field. Clicking the Edit button displays the Edit Name dialog box, which is a version of the New Name dialog box, enabling you to change a named range’s definition; for example, by adding a column. You can also use the controls in the Name Manager dialog box to delete a named range (the range, not the data) by clicking it, clicking the Delete button, and then clicking OK in the confirmation dialog box that opens." Clear as mud!
Keeping Up Appearances
The section that explains how to change the appearance of your spreadsheet is reasonably well done, but relies too heavily on the user working through the process on the practice files. There are many things one can do to make a spreadsheet more readable, highlight important data and make a printout look good, and the author goes through all of them in a fairly straightforward manner. However, again, the purpose of a spreadsheet is to deal with the data. I think this section on customizing the look of the spreadsheet should have come after the chapters that explain how to manipulate the facts and figures. The practice files are set up as examples of things a fictitious business might want to do with a spreadsheet, so the chapters that talk about filtering, reorganizing, combining and analyzing data all make heavy use of the practice files. Again, the explanation of what’s being done is perfunctory and the author’s writing style doesn’t improve. Everything is explained, but after having to slog through over a hundred pages just to get to the "meat" of spreadsheet use, I’m not sure anyone’s really willing to keep going at this point. I’ll be honest with you—if I hadn’t been reading Microsoft Excel 2010 Step By Step to review it, I wouldn’t have gotten even this far.
I Could Go On, But....
I think it’s pretty clear by now that this book isn’t worth your time. It’s poorly written and poorly organized, and while the author clearly knows a lot about Microsoft Excel 2010, he’s also lost track of his target audience—the newcomer who needs everything explained in clear language, step by step. As someone who’s always been a fan of the Step By Step series, and who stands in awe of their consistent quality, I came away wondering if someone on the editorial staff was on vacation when this one went to press.
Usually, when I write a review of a book I’m not so enthusiastic about, I still do my best to find things to praise in it. I try to read carefully and look for positive things to say. I had the absolute dickens of a time doing that with this book, even going into it as both a Microsoft Excel user with only basic knowledge and as a fan of the Step By Step series. I wouldn’t even recommend checking this one out of the library, and anyone who’s read my other reviews knows that’s a first for me. There are better books out there. Leave this one on the shelf.