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When Less Is More: Text Expansion Software

By Vivian Manning

How often will you type these or similar words: “Please contact me if you have any questions”? “Please find attached”? Or “To receipt and review of letter”? Or citations similar to this: “Family Law Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F-6.”?

What if I told you that …

  • The first could be accomplished with just the letters PCM
  • The second could be accomplished with just PFA
  • The third with RRL
  • The fourth with FLA

Wouldn’t that terrifically increase your typing efficiency?

Well, it’s easy to do (and in some cases free). It’s called text expansion software—and  it’s like shorthand for your typing. It can free you from tons of repetitive typing and also ensure that much of your keyboarding is error-free. The downsides are minor—the small price of the software in some cases and, in all cases, the need to memorize the expansion triggers.

How Does It Work?

All text expansion software operates on the same basic principle: Assign a series of keystrokes to a phrase, sentence or block of text, along with an assigned “trigger” to expand the keystrokes to the desired text. It’s that simple. The trick is to come up with a pattern of keystrokes that works for you.

My pattern is to use the first letter of the first three or four words of the text I want to expand (this helps me remember what I assigned). Others use a word with a hash tag (#) or some other symbol in front of or following the keystrokes. It’s crucial that the keystrokes not be a word by themselves (i.e., without a symbol right before or after), or else you’re going to be unhappy when you really want to use that particular word and not the expanded text.

So What Are Your Choices?

If you’re working with Microsoft Office, especially Word and Outlook, you already have tools at your disposal in Autocorrect and AutoText (QuickParts). That’s right, Autocorrect isn’t just for correcting your common typos—it can be nicely manipulated to expand text, too. In addition to the advantage of already being on your computer, it can also format expanded text. Its disadvantage? It only works within Microsoft Office products and not uniformly across all of them. Here are some other options.

  • Texter. (Free.) This little freebie is a very small download and install. It’s easy to use and works uniformly across every piece of software that accepts text input. The one downside is that it is plain text only, so no fanciness. If plain text is all you need, however, this is the simplest way to go.
  • AutoHotkey. (Free.) This is another freebie, but it does much more than simple text expansion, so it can be a bit intimidating for beginners.  Like Texter, AutoHotkey operates uniformly across all software.
  • Shortkeys. ($24.95.) Shortkeys has been in use here at my office for a number of years with users who need more than Texter can provide. Its features include auto insertion of times and dates, if desired, and it’s networkable.
  • Phrase Express. ($49.95, with a free version available for non-professional use.) Phrase Express includes text expansion and more and uses a pop-up menu approach, shown in the demo video here.
  • ActiveWords. ($49.95, with a free 60-day trial, and a free version available with limited features.) ActiveWords also includes text expansion and much more, and text expansion can include formatting. Watch the helpful demo video here.

What About Mac Users?

You’re not left out in the cold, Mac users. Text expansion software can be yours, too. Macworld has a nice roundup of Mac text expanders here. (Ed. Note: At Attorney at Work, we use TextExpander, which has an app for iPhone and iPad, too, for phrases, email signatures and even images.)

If you still need some convincing about the merits of expansion software, David Pogue, New York Times tech columnist, expressed his text expansion software love in this short column. He’s right—what’s not to love for people who do a lot of keyboarding?

One Last Tip

Don’t build up a library of abbreviations too quickly, or you’ll just forget them. Build them up slowly, over time, starting with your most used phrases. Work with them first until your fingers remember them, then add another small group until you’ve customized your own personal keyboard shorthand.

You won’t regret it.

Vivian Manning is the IT Manager at Barriston Law LLP in Barrie, Bracebridge and Cookstown, Ontario. Prior to moving into IT, Vivian practiced law at Barriston LLP primarily in the area of Municipal Land Development, with a total of 17 years in private practice before switching to the IT side of the law office. She currently indulges her love of teaching tech through her blog Small City Law Firm Tech, where she provides “tips of the day.”

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Productivity, Legal Technology
Originally published April 30, 2012
Last updated October 19, 2019
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Vivian Manning

Vivian Manning retired from Barriston Law LLP in Barrie, Bracebridge and Cookstown, Ontario in 2019. For more than 16 years she served as the firm’s IT manager, office manager and technology trainer. Prior to moving into IT, Vivian practiced law at Barriston LLP (formerly Burgar Rowe PC) primarily in the area of Municipal Land Development, with a total of 17 years in private practice before switching to the IT side of the law office.


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