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    How to Add Dotted Lines to Line Graphs in Microsoft Excel

    Updated on: Nov 12th, 2019
    Data Visualization in Excel
    , , , ,

    Here’s a common data visualization challenge: Slides with some, but not all, of the chronological data included. 

    Image showing data statistics that are missing a number of years' data.

    The Challenge 

    The challenge is twofold: 

    • First, how do you take your bullet points and transform them into a graph? What type of graph should it be? How should it be formatted? How do you make the graph easy to understand?  
    • Second, what if your dates don’t go in order? What if you’ve got data for one point in time… and then you skip a big chunk in the middle?  

    The Excel Solution that Doesn’t Work 

    First, I tried filling in my table with the few data points that were available. 

    Excel doesn’t quite know what to do with that.  

    Excel didn’t show anything at all for FY07. No dot. Nothing. 

    And, there’s all this white space between FY07 and FY17, which is obviously not going to work.  

    Screenshot of an Microsoft Excel line graph that is missing data.

    Using Dotted Lines to Show Uncertainty 

    Here’s the edited version. 

    We used a dotted line to connect two points on the graph. Dotted lines are great for visualizing estimates or uncertainty.  

    Screenshot of a Microsoft Excel graph that fills in missing data with a dotted line.

    So how did I do this?  

    How to Add Placeholder Data to Your Table 

    You need to fill in some placeholder numbers with estimated values. 

    In this example, we’ll make our line increase by 5.27% each year. 

    How to Calculate a Placeholder Value 

    To find the placeholder value, I took the FY18 number minus the FY07 number and divided that by 11. Why 11? Because there’s an 11-year gap between FY07 and FY18.  

    Screenshot showing in Microsoft Excel how to calculate a placeholder value.

    Increase Each Year by the Placeholder Value 

    Each year increases by 5.27%. 

    In the first box, it’s 30% plus 5.27%. 

    The next box is 35% plus 5.27%. And so on. 

    Screenshot showing how to increase each year by the placeholder value in Microsoft Excel.

    Selective Labeling Will Focus Your Audience on Your Years of Choice 

    In the table, you’ll notice that these placeholder values don’t have fiscal years above them.  

    I don’t want every single year’s label to show up in the graph. I want to focus on the numbers that we do have data for.  

    Screenshot showing in Microsoft Excel how to selectively label data.

    How to Change Solid Lines to Dotted Lines in Excel 

    After setting up your table, you’re going to insert a line graph just like you’ve done a million times before. By default, Excel gives you a solid line.  

    How do you get the dotted line appearance? This part is really easy!  

    Click Once to Edit the Entire Line 

    If you click once on the line, you’ll notice that all of the dots are selected.  

    You can edit the entire line at once, just as you normally do. For example, you can change the line’s color, width, etc. 

    Screenshot showing in Microsoft Excel how to change a solid line into a dotted line.

    Click Twice to Edit Pieces of the Line  

    If you click on one of the dots a second time, then you can edit one smaller segment of the line at a time. 

    The dot controls the piece of the line just before it. You would click on the dot in this screenshot, for example, to edit just the section of line to the left of it.  

    Screenshot showing in Microsoft Excel how you can edit sections of a line at a time.

    Right-click on that dot and select Outline.

    Screenshot in Microsoft Excel showing how to change a solid line into a dotted line.

    Then, click on Dashes.

    Screenshot in Microsoft Excel showing how to change a solid line into a dotted line.

    Experiment with a Few Different Dashed Styles 

    You’ll need to try a few different dashed styles.  

    Some styles work better for smaller graphs, and some styles work better for larger graphs. It depends on whether your graph is going into a tiny space in a Word report, or into a large slide in a PowerPoint presentation. 

    For this particular graph, I didn’t change the segments to dashed lines one at a time. That would be way too much work! Since all but one segment would be dashed, I set the entire line to be dashed, and then set one segment to be solid. 

    Avoid Using Text Boxes and Shapes Whenever Possible 

    Sometimes people think I’m going to Insert –> Shape and adding some type of dashed line.  

    While you’d get the same end result… that would be a lot of work.  

    Screenshot in Microsoft Excel suggesting you not use text boxes and shapes whenever possible.

    I don’t want to add text boxes or shapes on my graphs if I can avoid it.  

    I work on a lot of automation projects, so the more built-in features you can have, the better. Manually creating shapes is clunky and time-consuming. 

    Bonus! Watch a Tutorial 

    I’ve always found that watching someone’s mouse click on the screen makes learning a million times easier than following screenshots. 

    Here’s the video version of this blog post, where you’ll learn exactly which buttons to click on. 

    Bonus! Download the Excel File 

    Download the Excel file used in this tutorial and use it however you’d like.  

    Download the File

    Your Turn 

    Comment below and let me see examples of dotted lines in your projects. I look forward to hearing from you.

    More about Ann K. Emery
    Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.


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