Differences Between Spreadsheets & Word Processing

By Nick Davis

Available as standalone programs and as part of a suite, spreadsheet and word processing applications allow you to complete a number of task on your computer quickly including composing letters, documents, crunching numbers and creating financial projections. Spreadsheet and word processing programs are similar, but a spreadsheet application is geared toward numerical data and a word processing application is geared toward composing documents.


Spreadsheets allow users to enter numeric data into a document known as a "workbook" and calculate this data using formulas and "what if" scenarios. Once the data is processed, it is easily outputted as a printed report or as a chart. The calculated data can even be transferred and embedded in a word processing document or extracted to another program including a database. Spreadsheets are not all numeric, text can also be entered and is commonly used as headings over columns of numeric data.

Word Processing

A word processing program lets you compose letters, memos and other documents quickly without the use of a typewriter. The program also lets you format your document with a variety of fonts, styles, symbols, graphics and charts. Like a spreadsheet program, word processing programs also lets you transfer data to another application including to a spreadsheet or database. You can also create email messages and basic websites within certain word processing programs.

Common Elements

Both spreadsheet and word processing programs include the ability to save your completed files in a variety of formats including as a "Text" and "Rich-Text" files as well as in other formats that are easily processed by other programs. Both programs come with spelling and grammar checking utilities, search/replace, as well as page formatting options, headers, footers and justification options.


Word processing programs let you compose a standard letter to send to others with just the other parties details changed by the use of a built-in utility known as a mail merge. Word processing programs cannot process formulas directly (without the use of an add-on module), but can accept the result of a calculation.Spreadsheet programs cannot process a mail merge, the programs can only provide data for the mail merge. Spreadsheet programs use cells, rows and columns to hold data where word processing programs use an open template that doesn't place restrictions on where data can be entered.


Microsoft Word, OpenOffice Writer and WordPerfect are examples of word processing programs. Each program can open word processing documents created in another word processing application by converting the file first. Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice Calc and Lotus 1-2-3 are examples of spreadsheet programs. Like the word processing applications, each spreadsheet program can open files created in another application. Data can even be exported directly to another program's format.