Using Excel for Biographical/Chronological Information

“Yes. It’s a strange feeling, Kha’Mak, to know suddenly that all the decisions in your life have brought you to this place. There is no longer doubt or uncertainty. The future now consists of only three probabilities. … In the moment that I strike, the Emperor and I will both die. Or he will die and I will spend my life in prison. Or I will fail and be killed. For the first time in my life, the path is clear.”
“I was ready. I had prepared myself. I had made my peace with the universe, put all my affairs in order. I had the dagger in my hand! And he has the indecency to start dying on his own. Never in my life have I seen a worse case of timing.”
G’Kar in Babylon 5: “The Coming of Shadows”

I’m not a fan of Excel, but I’ve seen an interesting presentation a while ago (sorry, lost the source) in which the author described how he wrote a biography of a famous person (I think it was Martin Luther King, Jr.) by using Excel.

He created an Excel file and used one column to write down information that happened at a specific time in the life of this person, and another column to write down the exact date. After intensive research he had a very long Excel file and the sorting function of Excel ordered all the events in the correct chain of events. I’m not sure, but I think another column was for meta information, like the importance of the event. This way it becomes very easy to make sense of chronological information.

There are limitations (doesn’t Excel cap the amount of letters in each cell?), but it sounds like a very good and easily available starting point. You can research without having to worry about the correct order, as long as you write down the exact date (2012-07-22, or 2012-07-xx if the day is unknown, etc.). And of course, you can easily copy the columns and paste them into a text file and then into an content outliner like Circus Ponies Notebook or OmniOutliner.

Of course, there are similar solutions, like using a database and using one filed for the date, or using a multiple column outliner like OmniOutliner.

So, using Excel (or any other program) in this way is a very specific solution when you get information in more or less random order but the events have a very specific date. If you work with this kind of information, using Excel this way might actually be helpful.


  1. Interesting idea!

    In a recent meeting, I saw a Japanese colleague taking notes in Excel. My first thought was “Odd!” But then I saw that she has a system similar to what you’re describing (dates, notes, tags, etc.) for all kinds of notes related to her work. It seems to work well enough for her.

    I’m enjoying your blog!

  2. Hoi Randall,

    thank you for the comment and the example of how you can use Excel for todos … didn’t think about that 🙂

    All the best


  3. Investigative reporters take/organize notes in Excel. For examples, look at:
    “Investigative Reporting: From Premise to Publication Paperback” (Marcy Burstiner) She also describes a tagging method, and a way to identify rows by a “major theme” column, and then by a “priority” column, so if you combine all your notes, say, from interviews, you can collect them by theme (injuries, for example) rather than by interviewee. She also shows how to make internal links, from your “notes from this interview” document to the working outline of the first draft.

    And here’s another description of the spreadsheet-based approach to organizing and collecting research for investigative journalism — chapter 5. Free!

    I’m trying out these techniques. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m finding it useful because the interface for entering dates in Aeon is a bit convoluted and getting the information back out is prone to bugs. But it displays nicely. 😀

    I don’t like Excel’s inability to add more whitespace around cells (I don’t mean initial tabs). I know it’s a bit picky, but it does affect readability for me. Also, it just looks cramped and bean-counter-ly. I tried Numbers, but it’s terribly slow for anything larger than 200 rows.

    Oh Excel! If only you were prettier, you’d be my new best friend. 😀

  4. I also forgot to add: I’m writing a script for my documentary. To approximate running time for certain sequences, I’m writing the script (screenplay) in Excel. I’m estimating 100 words per minute (spoken) and wrote some simple math functions. Excel then tallies what I’ve written, and I can see how many minutes per sequence (and I hold in memory which shots I plan to use) and also tallies the total running time so far. Some topics can’t sustain more than two minutes, and this helps me stay around there, rather than writing 4-6 minutes of material when it will only make more editing work later.

    I added some other niceties, specific to my workflow, like placeholder-seconds for shots which won’t have spoken language over them. But you get the general idea.

    Ah, Excel! I wish you were easier on the eye.

  5. Interesting uses of Excel … hmmm, I wonder if the people who started with these calculation softwares could have imagined for which purposes it would be used. From a very exact and no-nonsense use of finance calculation to supporting creative people staying on track. Impressive how creative people are able to use seemingly bleak and “uncreative” tools for their uses 🙂

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