Power User

Seven Alternatives to Composing Email from Scratch

By | Apr.09.13 | Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Legal Technology, Power User, Productivity

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I’m lazy, and that’s a trait I try to take advantage of whenever possible. How? By relying on every software automation function available to me. If the software will do my work, I’m darned well going to let it. Not only is it faster (leaving me more time to garden if the snow ever melts), but software makes fewer typos than I do when left to my own non-automated fingers.

When it comes to composing emails, most everyone does it the long way, keystroke by tedious keystroke. But a lot of what’s written in emails is repetitive — replies to prospective client inquiries containing boilerplate information, for example, or memos to bookkeeping. Microsoft Outlook provides a veritable bounty of automation features that will compile your keystrokes for you, so why keep typing from scratch? Instead, try some of these automation alternatives. And if I’ve missed something, please share your shortcut to creating a long email in the comments box at the end. (These concepts apply to other email programs, too.)

1. AutoCorrect

AutoCorrect, the old standby, is still available in newer versions of Outlook, but Microsoft has it hidden away. If you use AutoCorrect in Word, you already know how to use it in Outlook as a kind of shorthand: You assign a code to a long string of text. You type the code, then hit the space bar and, like magic, the code disappears and in its place you get the text you specified. The text can be as short or long as you like, and it can be formatted any way you like. If it was perfect when you created it, it will be perfect when you let AutoCorrect re-create it. (Just don’t make your code a real word, or every time you type your code into an email when you really want just the word itself, you’ll have to correct it!)

To access AutoCorrect in Outlook 2010 and 2013, click File, Options, Mail, Spelling and AutoCorrect, then AutoCorrect Options. Enter your chosen code in the Replace box, then paste your desired replacement text in the With box. Then, click the Formatted Text radio button and Add. Now, the next time you type that code and then press the space bar—presto—the replacement text will appear. For a short explanation, here’s a good lesson on using AutoCorrect in Microsoft Office. (Just ignore the references to “typo”—the typo you are replacing is your code, not a spelling mistake!)

2. AutoText

AutoText is quite similar to AutoCorrect, in that you type a chosen code and let it expand to the desired text. It is still available in Outlook 2010, but Microsoft has moved it to display under Quick Parts. (I’m not sure about Outlook 2013.) To create an AutoText, simply create the text you wish to insert in your email, then select it and assign a code to it. Then, when you press the F3 key, or hit Enter, the code will be replaced by the text you specified, with formatting intact. Here’s a super quick tutorial on using AutoText in Outlook 2010, How to NOT type commonly typed phrases in Outlook.

3. Quick Parts

Microsoft’s Quick Parts feature is meant to be the replacement for AutoText. I’m so wed to AutoCorrect and AutoText that I’ve never taken to Outlook’s Quick Parts. (It doesn’t seem to function much differently than AutoText.) But Quick Parts are easy to create and use. Type the text that you want to insert automatically into your email, select it, and then choose Quick Parts on the Insert Ribbon. Next, choose “Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery” and assign a name (a description is optional). The next time you want to insert that text in an email, just go to Insert, select Quick Part and choose from the displayed list. Or, just start typing the text and, eventually, a pop-up will appear. When it does, press the Enter key and the remainder of the text will be added. (Microsoft’s Outlook blog has a quick how-to on Using Quick Parts here.)

4. Message Templates

Outlook message templates are very similar to Word document templates, just more annoying to use because you really have to dig into the menus to create and use them. Once you do have a template message created, however, you will find that it does have extra bells and whistles that AutoText, AutoCorrect and Quick Parts can’t duplicate. With a message template, you can pre-set the To, CC and BCC lines, along with the Subject line. If you have a 100 percent repetitive email, this may be a great way to go. Just call up the template and finalize it however you wish, then hit Send. Off the email goes, but the template remains, ready to be used when you next need it. If you decide Outlook’s message templates are the way you want to go, have a quick read here first.

5. Draft Messages

Using draft emails for repetitive emails is a take-off on templates, but a heck of a lot less clicky to access. A draft email is a saved but unsent message, generally stored in the Drafts folder. To create a reusable draft email, just create the message as you normally would, including any To (etc.) and Subject lines, but don’t send it yet—save and close it instead. When you’re ready to send it, head off to your Drafts folder and open the draft message. Here’s the really important part: You don’t send it, but you forward it instead. When you forward the unsent draft, Outlook will create a copy of the draft for you to send off, leaving the draft intact for future use. You can work up quite a stable of draft message templates using this approach! MSOutlook.info has a good explanation here: Keep a copy of a draft as a message template.

6. Save Unsent Email Outside of Outlook

You don’t have to save the email to your Drafts folder—you can save it to your Desktop (or another folder) for even easier access. Just go ahead and draft the email fully, then save it outside of Outlook, using the “Save as” process. Make sure you save it with a .msg file extension. (That’s Outlook’s file format for emails.) Browse to the location you want to save the email. (I prefer my desktop or a folder on my desktop for these saved but unsent emails.) If you save to your desktop, you’ll see a new envelope icon on your desktop—that’s your unsent email. To send, just double-click on the message file to open and polish it off, then hit Send. Off the email goes, leaving behind the original on your Desktop for future use. Of the many ways to compose reusable emails, this is my favorite.

7. Email Signatures

This one always takes people by surprise. Most everyone has automatic signatures added to the end of their emails—you know, the part that says “Thanks, Vivian Manning, IT Manager,” etc. But nobody says you have to limit your signature to that standard information. A signature can be an entire email, and you can create multiple signatures. Potentially, with this method, you can create a reusable email by just clicking Insert, Signature, and then choosing the particular signature that contains the text you want to send. Very easy and convenient. Outlook 2010 and 2013 users: Be aware that you can only have one signature per message, so make sure that when you use signatures for an entire message, the message also includes your real signature, too! Microsoft provides basic instructions on creating an email signature in Outlook here.

Now that you have alternatives, pick the one that appeals to you most and stop working for your email. Put it to work for you instead! Just one small caveat. Don’t overwhelm yourself by creating too many reusable messages at once. I promise, you’ll forget more than you remember. Break it down into small chunks, and once that first chunk is committed to memory, move on to the next.

Vivian Manning indulges her love of teaching tech through her blog Small City Law Firm Tech. Follow her @vivianmanning.

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