last updated: 8 November 2020 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 870 words)
I spend a lot of my day typing. There are many ways I seek to reduce the amount I type and to be more efficient when I type.
One tool that I use is what is often called a text expander.
How a Text Expander Works
At is most straightforward, a text expander works by taking a typed input and outputting different text according to set rules. So I could type cat but the text expander would output dog.
Now clearly, there is never any situation where I would type cat when I meant dog, but these tools have a use for reducing errors and reducing the number of keys that I hit during a day.
Maybe some practical examples may help to illustrate how these tools can be useful.
We all have stock phrases that we type frequently. For instance, I’ll often sign off an email with a standard phrase: All the best…Simon. Instead of typing those twenty characters, with a text expander, I can type “atbs” and the tool will automatically output the twenty letter closing. Not only does it save me 16 key strokes, but it reduces the chances of errors (it’s embarrassing to spell my own name wrong).
Another instance of stock phrases comes with my book titles. For instance, instead of typing The Murder of Henry VIII, I can type “tmh”, and the text expander will do the rest.
These are small savings. A more significant example (for me) of using stock phrases comes when I outline a book.
I outline in Word. My outlining process is to put a series of headings for each scene (time, place, dramatic purpose of the scene, decisions the scene character is making, and main scene action points). These act as prompts which can be added to, edited, or deleted as necessary.
A regular novel (for me) may have between sixty and eighty scenes. With a few keystrokes, I can drop the headings, all formatted, and get to work on a scene.
If you use Word, you’ll be used to its autocorrect feature—if you misspell a word, then Word will automagically correct it for you. The trouble comes when you move out of Word and lose the automatic correction.
With a text expander, I can autocorrect all my errors irrespective of which application I am writing in. So I no longer need to worry when I type anoter (another), belive (believe), colud (could), or indded (indeed).
Special Characters and Extending the Keyboard
One other use I have for text expanders is deploying special characters that aren’t available on my keyboard. I’m using a UK English keyboard which, for instance, does not have an e acute character. In my latest novel, I have a character called Noémie. Instead of having to think about how to get an e acute, I type noemie and the text expander gives me Noémie.
While beyond the scope of a straightforward text expander, the program I use (more of which in a moment) allows me to assign characters to my keyboard which aren’t available on a conventional keyboard. One key that—for me—is missing is the em dash key, so I have assigned a key to trigger an em dash.
Why Do This?
There are a number of reasons to use a text expander. I suspect no one reason is enough to bother (I mean…how difficult is it to type the closing to an email?) However, when considering a combination of reasons, I find these tools compelling. For me, those reasons include:
- It saves time, effort, and manual repetition (which is good for those of us with repetitive strain injury symptoms).
- It bends my computer to work how I want it to work. With a text expander, my computer “just does” that fiddly stuff for me. Further, it extends the range of my keyboard and customizes it to offer what I want (in my case, an em dash key).
- Being able to consistently fix errors is a major plus. And having my keyboard input the same information consistently irrespective of the application removes an element of cognitive load.
Which Text Expander to Choose
There are many text expanders—lots of them are free. If you’re interested in giving one of these a spin, then check out this list.
What I Use
For my text expander needs, I use AutoHotkey.
AutoHotkey performs all the regular functionality a text expander does, but it also allows me to assign trigger keys (hotkeys in AutoHotkey-speak). These are keys (or combinations of keys) that when pressed trigger another character (or characters) to be output.
My main use case (as I mentioned above) is to add an em dash key to my keyboard. As you will know if you’ve read anything I write, I use em dashes quite liberally.
While they are seemingly really dull, text expanders are in truth utilitarian tools that work “under the hood” to make each day a little bit easier, and anything that makes each day a bit better must be good. If you spend any time typing and haven’t tried these tools, I can highly recommend them.