Saturday, March 10, 2007
Less typing. More typed. (My best writing tip.)

If you use Microsoft Word, you can make life easier.

If you write about some specific product or technology, consider the underutilized autotext feature (and to a lesser degree, Building Blocks in Word 2007). If you write articles or books or emails about computers or software, I'll bet you use the same base terminology repeatedly.

Suppose your company name is Amalgamated Industries. Type it in Word, select it (with the space after), and press Alt-F3. Change the suggested autotext name to ai, click OK and you're in business. Whenever you need to type your company name, just type ai and press F3. Bingo. Outlook can use Microsoft Word as text editor for composing e-mail, so the same two-letter shortcut should work in your emails. Real time saver.

I'm a technical writer for an audience of programmers. I write a lot of reference documentation for .NET objects, conceptual overviews, and simple tutorial procedures about how to use some related set of namespaces. Here are a few words I generally create autotext abbreviations for when I begin in a new group as a contractor:

I tend to make autotext abbreviations simple (p, ps, o, m, c).

Here are sample words or phrases that, if you use often, you might want to have autotext entries for:

Suppose you are writing an article or documentation about the Malicious Software Removal Tool. Wouldn't it be easier if you could type spy and press F3 and have Microsoft Word expand it to the full product name?

You can also define autotext for boilerplate phrases. The standard wording in the MSDN library for a constructor description begins with "Initializes a new instance of the xxx class." Every boolean property has a return value with this wording "true if xxx; otherwise, false." I include the xxx as placeholders in my autotext, and replace them each time I use that autotext entry.

For organizational purposes, I sometimes use a single Word document to contain the autotext entries that I define. I type the word or phrase in the same font and text size I will generally use in body text (Normal style) on a line by itself, followed by the letter x.

Select the word or phrase including the space after it, but not the x, then press Alt-F3. For some reason, Word wants to append the Return as part of an autotext entry if what you select has nothing unselected after it on the line.

Microsoft Word saves autotext entries to the Word template of the document where you defined the autotext entry, by default Normal.dot.

Picture this. You are one of the Gang of Four starting to write your book about design patterns. Wouldn't it be nice if you had the name of each design pattern defined with one or two letters, so that every time you referred to the Chain of Responsibility or Singleton or Proxy or Abstract Factory pattern you could just type cr, s, px, or af and press F3? Wouldn't that have saved you the most tedious 10% of writing the book?

And defining autotext is not a permanent change to Word. You can delete autotext entries or redefine them, even define ad hoc entries if you are going to be writing about some terminology for the next hour or so.

In Word 2007, they make using Building Blocks more visible (on the Ribbon), but the same keyboard shortcuts seem to work for me. Building Blocks aren't inserted into a document quite as effortlessly in my first pass of trying them out.

I hope you consider using this underpublicized feature of Microsoft Word, and that it makes your work on the computer easier and less tedious.

If it works for you, pass it on.

Flash update

Outlook 2007 uses its own Word template to save the autotext entries you create for use in your e-mails, so you might have to recreate or copy autotext entries from the Normal template to this special Outlook template.

If you use Vista's Microsoft Mail client, I think your Normal template autotext works either in Word or in Microsoft Mail.
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