Keep a copy of your data files in a plain text format, with comma or tab delimiters. I generally use comma-delimited (CSV) files.

So a spreadsheet like this:

215.7 0.73 105.2 Female 105 6 142.4 1.16 83.1 Male 104 5 297.6 1.23 124.8 Male 103 4 243.6 1.18 120.0 Female 102 3 273.4 0.60 134.1 Male 101 2 triglyc insulin glucose sex id 1 E D C B A

Would become a plain text file like this:


It’s not pretty to look at, but you can open the file in Excel and it will look pretty again. More importantly, this sort of non-proprietary file format does not and never will require any sort of special software.

(And most of the time, the first thing I do with an Excel file is convert it into a set of CSV files, one per worksheet, because they’re easier to handle in code.)

If any of the cells in your data include commas, Excel will put double-quotes around the contents of each cell when it’s saved in CSV format. That requires slightly more finesse to deal with, but it’s generally not a concern.

To save an Excel file as a comma-delimited file:

  • From the menu bar, File → Save As
  • Next to “Format:”, click the drop-down menu and select “Comma Separated Values (CSV)”
  • Click “Save”
  • Excel will say something like, “This workbook contains features that will not work…”. Ignore that and click “Continue”.
  • Quit Excel. It will ask you, “Do you want to save the changes you made?” Click “Don’t Save”, because you just saved them. (Excel really doesn’t want you to use a format other than its own.)

Note that there’s also an option to save as “Tab Delimited Text”. Many people prefer that. (I don’t like tab delimiters so much, myself, as multiple adjacent tab characters are hard to discern by eye.)

Also note that, if your Excel file did contain critical features that will not work when saved as a plain text file, that’s a problem. For your primary data file, keep things simple.

Personally, I prefer to use a vertical bar (|) as a delimiter between fields, because the data itself will seldom contain a vertical bar. But you can’t get that from Excel.

Next up: Other things to avoid.

(Previous: Use data validation to avoid data entry mistakes.)