Begin with a master list, preferably one entered either into a database or a word processing document. If a computer is unavailable, a handwritten list will work. Rewrite the list or reorganize it in your file or database, by category. These are some of the categories which are typical: bride's family, bride's friends, groom's family, groom's friends, bride's work colleagues and/or friends, groom's work colleagues and/or friends, singles', children. Add other categories as necessary. This master list will give you an idea of the maximum number of guests you may wish to invite.
Once you have reduced the master list to a number with which you are comfortable, invitations can be written. While you wait for guests to respond, you may wish to use color-coded index cards for each category, one for each guest within the category. The index card method is a blessing when it comes to the actual seating arrangements. Sit back and wait for the RSVPs. As regrets comeback, set those cards aside and/or eliminate and/or tag the guest appropriately in your database or word processing document. It makes absolutely no sense to start arranging guests before all the responses are back. To do so before that, will just results in the need to reshuffle, doing the job twice.
If you are have a serious time constraint, you may begin when most of the cards are returned. Set tables of eight, assuming that your caterer is putting ten at each table, or tables of ten, if your caterer is putting twelve at each table. Using that system, you allow yourself a one couple leeway (or two singles) at each table. If, in the end, you are forced to leave two seats empty, a table of eight is still full enough and it is always better to have two tables of eight than with one table of ten and one table of six. A half-empty table is depressing to everyone seated there.
The process starts to get difficult when you have a guest who just doesn't fit into a pre-defined category. The trick is to put such guests at tables with people who may be compatible at least on some level, such as age, similar occupations, and "not-coupled" guests. It is certainly acceptable to mix friends and relatives at a table if they have other things in common. The key is always to arrange people in the best way you know that will create an atmosphere in which they are likely to enjoy themselves.
The reception will go more smoothly if particularly serious attention is paid to seating arrangements where divorced or separated parents are involved. There is no percentage in seating divorced parents (and their respective families) close to one another. Avoiding a head table and seating parents at separate tables, best deals with the problem.
Even if you do the job the best way know how it is likely that you will wind up with a group of twelve people who should appropriately be seated together at a table which only holds ten. It's best under these circumstances to split the table in half, putting six guests at each table, and filling in the remaining for seats with those guests who simply don't fit anywhere else. If the tables are placed adjacent one another, it's possible for people to converse with one another by visiting "next-door."
When using the index card system, there is both an advantage and a disadvantage to using one card for each person rather than one card per couple. It's easier to keep the numbers straight with cards representing one person. You must, however, be careful to make certain that when you move a guest who is part of a couple, to also move the other guest. Shuffle the index cards around until you have the best possible arrangement of tables.
Once the table arrangement is set, it's time to write out place cards. Most wedding consultants advise using first and last names rather than titles. This method eliminates the sensitivity issue for women who object to being addressed as "Mrs.," as opposed to their own full name. It also eliminates the problem with women who have maintained a different last name than their husband's. Those guests who will be seated with people they don't know are given an added advantage when place cards have first and last names. It's easier to remember both John and Mary Smith if their names are written in that way on the place card, as opposed to Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. Table numbers or table names can be written directly on the place cards and set out on the place card's table near the entrance to the reception room. Of course, it's really important for the table name or number to appear prominently and not to be "buried" behind a floral centerpiece or set behind candles.
There are any number of variations which can be applied to the card table. In addition to or in place of floral decorations, it has become increasingly popular for party favors to double as place cards. The creative couple may choose to use tiny picture frames, plastic containers filled with streamers or confetti, or individual boxes of chocolates upon which to put the names of their guests. Party favor suppliers are coming up with new and novel ideas every day. Some couples use the card table to display wedding portraits of their parents and grandparents, adding a sense of history to the wedding celebration.
Although most couples will agree that doing their seating arrangement is a daunting task, it's one that when approached with sensitivity and organization manages to get done as well as it can be.