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  1. Computer Skills
  2. TextExpander
Computers

TextExpander: An Introduction

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

TextExpander is a productivity app that uses keyboard shortcuts to automatically insert longer blocks of frequently used text called snippets. For repetitive tasks that require entering the same information over and over again, it is an invaluable tool that can save a surprising amount of time.

For example, I have it set up so that when I type the keyboard shortcut ;em, TextExpander automatically expands it into my email address. This is something that I type at least a few times each day. This is a simplistic example and only saves me a few seconds every time, other snippets I use save me a lot more time.

While other apps like Keyboard Maestro can achieve similar results, TextExpander’s feature set is more focussed and tailored towards the task. If you’ve followed my series on Keyboard Maestro you can try recreating what I do with that app instead.

In this short series on TextExpander I will look at getting the most from the app. In the first tutorial, I’ll explore the basics of setting up and using it.

Screencast

Prerequisites

To follow this tutorial you’ll need a copy of TextExpander installed. There’s a 30-day free trial after which the app costs $44.95. It can be downloaded from Smile Software, the developer.

Like most of the other powerful automation apps, TextExpander requires Accessibility access to the Mac. 

To enable it go to the Accessibility menu in the Privacy tab of the Security & Privacy preferences pane and make sure the boxes next to TextExpander and TextExpander Helper are checked.

The Importance of Good Abbreviations

TextExpander, more than any other productivity app benefits from simple, natural keyboard shortcuts that are intuitively linked to what they do. 

Using my above example, ;em is easy to remember because it uses the first two letters of the word email. The drawback, however, is that if an abbreviation is too simple and natural, you will accidentally trigger it without meaning too. If my email address snippet was just triggered by em, it would launch all the time without me wanting it to.

That is why it is important to use an abbreviation modifier like the semi-colon in ;em. This phrase, while still easy to type, is much harder to trigger accidentally.

Semi-colons, full-stops, commas and uncommon letters like x all work well as modifiers.

Another common abbreviation modifier is to double up on the first letter, for example, eemail or eem as an abbreviation for an email address.

To make the most of TextExpander you should pick an abbreviation modifier and stick with it. Consistency is the key to making it easy to use. If you intend to use TextExpander Touch, the iOS app, then an uncommon letter is the simplest choice.

Tip: As you use TextExpander and create more snippets you might find it useful to start using multiple modifiers with each one being dedicated to a different group of expansions. For example, all snippets related to work could use x while all personal ones would use y as a modifier.

Creating A New Snippet

Snippets can be either Plain Text, Formatted Text and Pictures or a script. In this tutorial I’ll only be looking at the first two.

Plain Text snippets, as the name suggest, insert unformatted text. Whatever you insert takes on the attributes of the surrounding text. For most situations, Plain Text is what you want.

With Formatted Text and Pictures you can apply formatting to the text that is kept when it’s inserted. You can also insert images. A great use for this is adding logos and corporate branding to documents or email signatures.

The simplest way to create new a new snippet is using the main TextExpander app. As an example, lets create an email snippet similar to the one I mentioned above.

creating an email snippet
Creating an email snippet.

From the menubar icon, or the main app window, select New Snippet. For Content: select Plain Text and then enter your email address.

Next, assign it a Label; something like Email Address is perfect.

Finally, add the abbreviation you want to trigger the snippet. If in doubt, use ;em or xem.

With that done, you’ve created your first snippet. Just type your abbreviation into any app to trigger it.

Creating a Formatted Text Snippet

Creating a Formatted Text snippet follows the exact same process as creating a Plain Text one. The only difference is that the greyed out Text dropdown becomes activated.

Select the text you are adding to the snippet and format it with the options from that dropdown.

formatted snippet
A formatted text snippet.

Creating a Snippet Whilst You Work

Often you’ll realise while you work that something you’ve just typed would make a good snippet. The fastest way to create one is to select what you want to be the new snippet and copy into the clipboard with Command-C.

snippet from clipboard
Creating a snippet from the clipboard.

From the TextExpander menubar app, select Create Snippet from Clipboard. The text currently on the clipboard will be autofilled so enter the abbreviation you want to use.

Suggested Snippets

New in TextExpander 5 is a feature that notes what you frequently type and suggest new snippets based on it. Once you’ve TextExpander installed, you’ll notice occasional popups recommending a new snippet. These are all added to the Suggested Snippets group in TextExpander.

suggested snippets
Some of TextExpander's Suggested Snippets.

To save one of TextExpander’s suggestions, open the app and twirl open the Suggested Snippets group. Select the snippet you want to assign an abbreviation for and choose Keep Suggestion. Enter the abbreviation and the snippet is now added.

Adding Predefined Snippets

TextExpander comes with a number of optional Predefined Snippets like Emoji or Accented Words. To add one, click on the plus in the bottom left of the main app window and select the Add Predefined Group dropdown.

predefined
The predefined Emoji snippets.

Select the group you wish to add. You can modify any of the default abbreviations.

How to Find Snippets to Add

To get the most out of TextExpander you need to spend some time identifying the things that you type repeatedly. Email addresses, phone numbers, greetings and signatures are all obvious examples. There are plenty more to be found.

Information that you type frequently but slightly differently each time is often the place where TextExpander becomes most useful. 

For example, I often have to share my previous work with people. Before TextExpander I used to paste a link to my Tuts+ profile and maybe one of my most recent tutorials. Now I use a snippet that not only includes my profile but also links to some of my favourite tutorials that I’ve written.

links snippet
A snippet that links to my previous work on Tuts+.

It says: 

You can see all my previous tutorials at https://tutsplus.com/authors/harry-guinness, however, a couple that I am especially happy with are: 

While you use your Mac as normal, be on the look out for instances like this. Although I never linked to my past work the same way twice before creating the snippet, it is still the kind of thing that’s perfect for making into one. 

Don’t just focus on the things that are identical but also consider things that are similar. If you frequently send emails that serve the same purpose, like pitches, reports or documents to clients, then a TextExpander snippet will speed up your workflow.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I covered the very basics of getting started with TextExpander. I’ve looked at what makes a good abbreviation, the importance of modifiers, how to create simple snippets and what you should look for when you are making one.

Now that you know how to use TextExpander, in the following tutorials I will be able to dive deeper into some of the app’s great features.

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