25 October 2012

3 text-expanding tools that will speed up your writing

I don’t believe in taking shortcuts when it comes to writing. I think quality work comes from time, attention and plenty of editing. However, if there’s a way to reduce how long I spend on repetitive tasks, I’m all for it. And that’s what this post is all about.

The following three tools can help you speed up your writing. The idea is simple. If you find yourself typing the same thing over and over again, now you don’t have to.

Microsoft Word’s autocorrect

Let’s not dwell on the pros and cons of using Word. The truth is, most people use it on a regular basis and any help to make the experience better is surely welcome.

Word’s autocorrect feature spots your typos and automatically change them to what it thinks you really meant to write. It’s pretty bog standard stuff, but once you start adding shortcuts to its dictionary, it becomes extremely useful and a great time saver.

I wrote most of A is for Angelica in Word. Naturally, my characters’ names appear hundreds of times. Instead of typing them out in full, I simply added shortcuts to Word’s autocorrect dictionary.

For example, for my main protagonist, Gordon Kingdom, I added the shortcut ‘gk’. So whenever I used his name, instead of writing it out in full, I simply typed gk and the autocorrect function immediately changed it to the full version. I added ‘cv’ for Cressington Vale, ‘.ang’ for Angelica, and so on.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways that you can use autocorrect feature to speed up your writing. Just think about the words that you use frequently and start assigning shortcuts. And if you’re new to autocorrect, it so happens that I recorded a handy screencast of how to use it way back in 2010.

TextExpander (Mac and iOS only)

I love TextExpander. I use it for so many things and yet I know that I’ve barely scraped the surface of what it can do. I honestly can’t imagine life without it.

TextExpander takes the basic idea of creating text shortcuts and applies it not just to one specific app, but to your entire operating system. It doesn’t matter where you’re working, if you type a shortcut, the full version ‘expands’ and saves you a whole heap of time.

With TextExpander, I can add the ‘gk’ shortcut and use it in any text editor. I’m not tied to Word and I don’t have to add it to the autocorrect dictionary in every app I use. This is a straightforward way of using it for single words, names or settings. Think of all the other phrases you type regularly.

Perhaps the best way of showing you what’s possible with TextExpander is to give you a list of shortcuts that I use on a daily basis:

  • .ang = A is for Angelica
  • urlib = http://iainbroome.com
  • urlang = http://iainbroome.com/a-is-for-angelica
  • ,twit = http://twitter.com/iainbroome
  • .ew = iain@writeforyourlife.net
  • .tfgit = Thanks for getting in touch.
  • ,bw = Best wishes

As you can see, you can go beyond single words and create shortcuts that expand to URLs, email addresses and regularly used sentences. In fact, there’s no limit at all to what you can expand. If you wanted a ‘,novel’ shortcut to expand your entire, 500-page novel, you could!

For those of you who sometimes need to write in HTML (I’m thinking fellow bloggers), TextExpander comes with built-in shortcuts for all the common HTML elements. For the amateur web developer, it’s an unbelievable time saver.

Take a look at the features page of the TextExpander website to get a better idea of all the things that it can do. Well worth $34.95 of anyone’s money.

Texter (Windows)

I use a Mac at home and, up until recently, a Windows PC at work. TextExpander is so useful that I wanted a similar app that would do the same sort of thing on my work computer. I tried a few apps out, but the one I stuck with was Texter.

The principle is exactly the same as TextExpander – create text shortcuts (called hotstrings in Texter) that expand to full words and phrases, wherever you’re working.

Unfortunately, the execution isn’t anything like as reliable and robust as TextExpander. Sometimes you have to type your hotstring a couple of times before it realises what you’re doing, and I found that once a hotstring expanded, my cursor would often turn up in unexpected places.

It’s easy enough to add new hotstrings using Texter’s interface, but they’re difficult to manage once you’ve got more than 20 or so. TextExpander allows you to create bundles, where you can group shortcuts that do a similar thing. There’s one for HTML, for example, and I have a bundle specifically for character names and story settings.

With Texter, you have to start from scratch, as there are no built-in hotstrings, and there’s no sensible way of organising the ones that you create. They just collect in a list, ordered by the date they were created. It’s not a huge deal, especially if you’re good at remembering your hotstrings, but a little more management would be nice.

However, though it may not be as reliable and powerful as TextExpander, Texter is completely free and does do the job pretty well. If you use Windows, I recommend giving it a go, as it’s still a fantastic time saver.

Here’s a useful Lifehacker article on using Texter.

Any suggestions?

As you may have noticed, I’m pretty happy with TextExpander for all my speedy needs, but if you know of any other apps that perform a similar function, please let me know in the comments.

  • Goldarn

    In the Language and Text system preference you can put in text shortcuts. I’ve used them in my writing, mostly because I can’t spell lieutenant. :-) For your list of shortcuts I think it would save you $35.

    • http://iainbroome.com Iain Broome

      Good tip, I didn’t realise that. My list here is just a few examples to explain how it works. I actually have many more shortcuts and use the HTML bundle all the time. I more than get my money’s worth but it’s right to check that paying out is going to be good for you.

  • http://www.thinkinprojects.com/ Rafal

    I would recommend PhraseExpress on Windows. It’s very powerful and more feature reach than Tasker. Also seems bit more stable at least for me. Definitely worth checking out. I’m using it daily.

  • http://www.brypix.com Peter Bryenton

    Good tips thanks Iain.
    I suggest taking a leaf from the way I teach blind children to write using Windows and MS Word. Using keyboard shortcuts instead of the mouse actually speeds up typing for everyone.
    A simple example: switch on bold by using Left Control with B. Switch it off again the same way. Or to get a main heading, Left Control with Alt with 1. A subheading comes with a 3 instead of the 1. Saving recent changes is an easy Left Control with S. The list is huge. Google these as hot keys or hotkeys for microsoft word.
    I am not a Mac user ( too expensive for 85 students to have one each) but there are similar “accessible” shortcuts for iOS.

  • http://marcusclearspring.com Marcus Clearspring

    I use the Geany text editor on Linux and Windows. Geany lets you add shortcuts in a plain text file, then just type 3 letters and press tab to expand. I like how you can also control the cursor to set it between quotes.

    Geany is Open Source. There’s also a Mac OS build.

  • Huw

    Have you tried Breevy on Windows (http://www.16software.com/breevy/)? I haven’t used it myself but heard about it on MacPowerUsers. It’s a text expander for Windows which can sync with and use your snippet library from TextExpander for Mac/iOS, a bit more convenient for people like yourself using a Mac at home but forced to use a PC at work.

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