TechNotes: Tools and Tips for Faster, Better Writing

Vol. 1, No. 12

Wells H. Anderson (info@activepractice.com) works with small firms and solos via virtual meetings to implement practice management, timekeeping and billing applications. Through his website, www.activepractice.com, he regularly publishes technology tips and articles and hosts a monthly webinar open to all.

 

  • Save time creating more effective documents and emails by using these utility programs and tips for working with text and formatting.

 

Wouldn’t you like to write in less time? Here is an assortment of great writing tools and tips to speed up the writing process. Do you write emails off and on all day long? Do you prepare presentations, agreements, legal arguments, or articles? Read on!

 

Text Substitution Programs

The tool that can improve your writing productivity the most is a text substitution program.

A text substitution program takes abbreviations you enter and automatically expands them into words, phrases, or entire blocks of boilerplate text. For example, you can type “plm” and the program will replace it with “Please let me know if you have any questions. I will be happy to answer them.” This sort of program may also be called a text expansion or text replacement program.

The speed with which you write increases markedly when you use your abbreviations often. You can insert long words, names, phrases, and paragraphs by typing abbreviations you have entered and memorized. You can also pop up a list of abbreviations, organized into folders, and select the one you want to use.

Reduced wear and tear on your wrists and arms is another benefit of using a text substitution program. You may also find you get an emotional lift from entering just a few characters and seeing a larger amount of text appear without your having to type all of it!

PhraseExpress has proven to work better than other text substitution programs. PhraseExpress is not free, but it is well worth the cost. It is a tall order to be compatible with every other program where you might want to enter text. PhraseExpress works with all of the many, many programs we have installed over the last five years. It even works as expected with remote access services such as GoToMyPC.

Click here to find freeware alternatives to PhraseExpress. However, it is doubtful you will find one with so many well-implemented features. One option that is especially attractive in PhraseExpress is that you can create abbreviations that expand immediately after the last character is typed. With most programs, you are required to type either a hotkey or any one of several convenient terminating characters such as space, period, comma, or return. That approach has advantages, but it can also be limiting.

 

Multiple Clipboard Managers

The essence of serious writing is rewriting. When you need to copy or move around paragraphs, blocks of text, or website links, use a multiple clipboard program as your tool. Microsoft Office has a multiple clipboard feature, but it can be confusing and works only with Office programs.

Ditto is a free, open source utility program that manages multiple clipboards for you. Ditto gives you access via a selectable hotkey or from a system tray icon. It works well for both keyboard enthusiasts and mouse devotees. On multiple computers, Ditto allows shared access to captured clipboards across a network. It has received the best reviews by those comparing the alternative free clipboard managers.

My favorite text replacement program, PhraseExpress, includes an excellent multiple clipboard manager as a built-in feature at no extra cost.

 

More Readable Emails

You want people to pay attention to the content of your emails. But, like you, they have a long stream of them to plow through. Do your clients, associates, and yourself a favor: Make your emails more readable while saving time.

How do you make your emails easier and faster to read? Use the Bullets button in your Outlook toolbar. Why?

  • Bullets break the monotony of line after line of text.
  • Bullets focus the recipient’s attention on the key points you make.
  • Points that stand out in bullets are grasped faster.

To draw even more attention to your points, click on the right edge of the Outlook Bullets button to select a different shape for your bullets.

If you need the recipient to respond to several questions, use the Numbering button. Why?

  1. The recipient is less likely to overlook one of your questions if they are numbered.
  2. When responding, the recipient can easily refer to your questions by number.

Don’t be afraid to use bold or italics to provide some emphasis instead of wracking your brain for adjectives and adverbs. What might be inappropriate in a brief, article, or book may be just the right way to help your email recipient understand what is especially important. Press Ctrl-B to begin bolding your text and Ctrl-B again to stop. Ctrl-I works the same way for italics.

 

Copy and Paste

Even if you are a diehard mouse user, master the Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V shortcut key combinations for Copy and Paste, respectively. They will save you time again and again.

Writing often requires synthesis: taking text from multiple locations and combining it into new, useful forms. You can speed up your writing process by learning to use two hotkeys (shortcuts or key combinations): Ctrl-C for Copy and Ctrl-V for Paste. You can use these hotkeys in almost all Microsoft Windows programs to copy selected text from one place and paste it into another. Highlight the words you want to copy. Press Ctrl-C. Place the cursor in the new location and press Ctrl-V to paste the words.

Ctrl-C for Copy is easy to remember. For Ctrl-V, think of the little “V” as a wedge that pushes words into the current location of the text cursor.

 

Dictation With SpeakWrite

You may be a very fast typist, but dictation can allow you to record a burst of thought faster than you can type. It also reduces the muscle fatigue that results from using a keyboard.

SpeakWrite transcribes your dictation into word processing documents economically. I have not run across another company that is so easy to work with and that offers these different options for creating and submitting dictation:

  1. Transfer files from a digital recorder via the web;
  2. Dial their 800 number, give your phone number and password, and start dictating;
  3. Use a smartphone app to record and submit your dictation;
  4. Dictate to a SpeakWrite program installed on your computer;
  5. Fax a handwritten or printed document.

Within three hours, a SpeakWrite typist transcribes your dictation into word processing documents and emails them to you. Concerned about security? SpeakWrite adheres to HIPAA’s privacy and security policies. All of the typists are screened, trained in security and confidentiality policies and procedures, and located in the United States or Canada.

Pricing for this dictation service is a 1.25 cents per word, or 1.5 cents if you want a trained legal transcriptionist to do your transcription. There are no other costs. Turnaround time is advertised as about three hours, but in my experience the service is usually faster. Founded by a lawyer, no other service matches SpeakWrite’s excellent quality and service. Contact the company at 800-828-3889 or www.speakwrite.com.

 

Research With LastPass

LastPass automates the process of logging into password-protected websites. Do you jump around to different websites where you have accounts when doing research? LastPass can both save you a lot of time and spare you from having to remember and type various logins and passwords.

With LastPass you use one login and super-secret password to store and protect all your passwords and critical private information. No one can access the contents of your account without your master password. Your master password is not known to LastPass administrators, and they cannot recover or restore it.

The service is available in free and premium ($1.00 per month) versions. The free version is fully functional but displays an advertisement on the side of the screen. The premium version supports use on mobile phones.

 

Mindmaps and Flowcharts

A picture is worth a thousand words. One diagram makes a big difference when you need to explain a procedure with multiple options or outcomes.

But creating diagrams is time-consuming. With the right mindmap or flowchart application, you can bring clarity to a complex topic in minutes.

Mindmaps have much in common with outlines: they allow you to divide a subject into topics (branches), subtopics, and short text entries. But mindmaps also let you draw ad hoc connections from one subtopic to another one in a different branch.

A mindmap can assist you in organizing a writing project quickly before you begin. The time you devote to organizing, prioritizing, and sorting reduces the overall time for your project. Your writing goes much faster when it is well organized.

MindManager stands out as the best PC-based mindmapping program, but I have switched to a web application (Software as a Service) named MindMeister. I find that MindMeister is less complex and faster without sacrificing important capabilities. It has the added advantages of all web-based applications: it is available on any computer, and there is no need to install anything.

Flowcharts serve a narrow but crucial niche for lawyers. Whenever you need to plan a sequence of events or a procedure that involves more than a few steps, think of using a flowchart. A flowchart enables you to spot shortcuts or omitted parts of the process you are working with.

For flowcharts I used to use AllClear. I still love its design, but the $340 cost for PC-based software is a disincentive even with the price break for upgraders. I have switched to LucidChart, another web application. The free version lets you create many charts with up to 60 objects per chart, but has some limitations. The basic version at $3.33 per month has more features and no limit on objects.

If nothing else, don’t miss the Hey Jude video on the LucidChart Example page. It is fascinating, entertaining, and instructive.

 

Organize With Headings and Styles

In any writing that has multiple parts, you can use headings to organize the content for both you and your readers. The headings make it easier for your readers to work their way through the material.

Microsoft Word has shortcut keys to convert a line of text into a heading. Press Ctrl-Alt-1 for Heading 1, Ctrl-Alt-2 for Heading 2, or Ctrl-Alt-3 for Heading 3. Each heading can have different formatting. You configure the formatting by right-clicking on a heading in the Style area of the menu ribbon.

 

Conclusion

Whether you are writing a quick email or a long legal document, these tips can save you time and make the process of writing easier. If you have a favorite tech tip, please let me know. Your suggestion could make it into a future column and be most helpful to other readers.

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