Why You Should Use Text Expanders
Guest post by Dan Sherman.
Computers are designed to make repetitive jobs easier. One thing we do more than anything else is type. If you are like me, you type the same thing several times during a day. What if you could train your computer to do the repetitive typing for you? That’s where text expansion software helps.
Text expanders do a very simple job. They watch what you type, and when you type a certain phrase or abbreviation, they expand it to something bigger. At it’s simplest, if I type:
]em the program deletes what I typed and inserts:
Many expanders will use variables too. If I type:
]now it would expand to:
2:51PM January 30, 2013.
Many of the programs allow for manual inputs, letting you personalize a block of text. I can type
]cat into my email client and the program inserts the following message, and asks me to type a value for
Dear %(input), Thanks for the email, but we don't represent clients who wish to sue a cat. -- firstname.lastname@example.org
If I type
]st (short for stamp), it types
20130116 - .pdf and puts the cursor after the dash. This way, I can easily rename and datestamp my PDFs to match our filing system.
I use the
] prefix for my abbreviations, because there is never a reason I would use
] immediately followed by text. Some people use things like
aad to insert their address, because that combination of letters doesn’t occur in English. The key is to pick a combination of letter or symbols that aren’t used any other time.
Most of the popular text-expansion programs come with libraries of common auto-correct entries. This lets you have auto-correct in every program you use, not just your word processor.
You probably see how powerful this can be, even with these simple examples. Maybe you have a few different email signatures you use. I have two for work and one for personal emails. Outlook and Gmail allow for multiple signatures, but with a text expander, you don’t even have to reach for the mouse. Just type
]sig2 to get your full signature block with Circular 230 disclosure, or just your name and email.
You could store common clauses for a contract, common phrases in a brief, or long client names as snippets and have access to them with only a few key strokes.
For me, using a text expansion program is about more than saving time. I type quickly, but I think much faster. Using a tool to speed up the process of getting text from my brain to the computer helps me work more smoothly and avoid a cognitive switching penalty.
There are a several solutions for Windows and OS X available; I’ve listed a few below. There are a few more options, but these are the big names. There are free utilities too, but I’ve found paid programs to be worth the money in nearly every case.
AutoHotKey – $0
I love AutoHotKey. But I also prefer to do my own oil changes. AutoHotKey is a powerful Windows automation utility, that includes text replacement “hotstrings” as part of its capabilities. It can also manipulate windows, run programs, visit websites, and much more. With some effort, you can make do almost anything that the more expensive products can. Basic text expansion is straightforward enough though. If you like to tinker, you can’t beat the price.
Breevy – $35
Breevy is a solid product. It does all the important things, and does them well. When I use Windows, this is what I use.
PhraseExpress – $50 or $140
PhraseExpress comes in two flavors: Basic, and Pro. Basic covers all the bases, while Pro adds some extremely powerful features. The extra $90 lets you use rich text snippets, including formatting, tables, and pictures, in Microsoft Office documents. It also provides a neat floating menu, and handy input forms. Finally, it will watch you work and suggest snippets. Check out the videos on its website to get an idea of what it can do. If I used Windows full time, I would buy the Pro version.
TypeIt4Me – $5 (currently on sale)
This is what I’m currently using. It offers all the features I need at a great price. The interface is a little confusing, but it spends most of it’s time in the menubar.
DashExpander – $2 (currently on sale)
It doesn’t have some of the more advanced features (like AppleScript interaction, or clipboard support), but DashExpander is a nice product that I used for a few months.
TextExpander – $35
It has an iOS version that it will sync snippets with. A lot of people use it, and there are a few online repositories set up for sharing useful snippets.
One final tip
Don’t put 10 new snippets in and try to remember all of them. Add them as you need, that way you aren’t trying to memorize several new things at the same time (like in law school). Start with an email signature, or something you type several times a day. The next day, add a new one. Growing your snippet library slowly lets you build up muscle memory.
Dan Sherman is an attorney at [Sherman & Patterson, Ltd.](http://www.splawfirm.net). He prefers a keyboard to a mouse, and would automate driving to work if he could.