Write faster by using text expansion
Text expansion programs are an essential productivity tool for attorneys and other writers. They allow you to type a few characters and turn them into full sentences or paragraphs.
Every attorney should use text expansion and keyboard shortcuts to speed up their writing and reduce typing strain. Text-expansion software — also known as text-replacement or snippet software — allows you to type shorthand cues (such as “rbl”) and have them automatically expand into full words (such as “reasonable”) or even entire sentences, paragraphs, or documents. For example:
You could type the cues “zph” or “adr” to type your phone number or address.
You could type the cue “gfd” to generate the phrase “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” which is convenient if you are litigating a contract claim.
You could type the cue “MSJstandard” and have it expand into a boilerplate legal-standard paragraph for a summary judgment brief.
You could type the cue “zni” to generate a standard response to unsolicited vendor emails, telling them that you aren’t interested and asking them to remove you from their list. (“zni” is made-up shorthand representing the prefix key “z” + “not interested” — the shorthand cue that triggers the expansion can be whatever you want it to be.)
More examples can be found below and in my book Elegant Legal Writing (UC Press 2024), which contains a chapter on advanced technology tips for lawyers and other writers.
Text-expansion software (including Microsoft Word!)
Text expansion is built into some operating systems, including Apple’s macOS and iOS. Here is a screenshot from the Text Replacement settings on my iPhone; these settings can be reached by visiting Settings > General > Keyboard > Text Replacement:
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Text expansion is also built into Microsoft Word. You may have experienced it unwillingly by typing (c) or (e), as in “Rule 15(c)” or “Rule 8(e),” only to have the (c) turn into © or the (e) turn into €.
Any part of a Word document can be turned into an “AutoText” entry that you can replicate with a few keystrokes. Most text expansion systems work with unformatted text, but AutoText entries in Word can preserve the formatting of the original item you copied. When preparing the Elegant Legal Writing manuscript, for example, I created an AutoText entry for the table where I wrote the before-and-after examples. Typing “CompEx” produced the blank table displayed below.
More examples from my setup
Refer to my recent blog post on common keyboard shortcuts and order the Elegant Legal Writing book for more examples of how text expansion and related technologies can help you write more productively. For example, in the book, I explain how my business litigation firm, Rushing McCarl LLP, uses text expansion to quickly communicate about potential objections at trial.
For now, here are a few more examples from my setup:
Typing “rmt” [“Rushing McCarl team”] in the “To” field of an email draft adds the email addresses of attorneys at my firm.
Typing “elww” [Elegant Legal Writing website] generates this newsletter’s home URL, www.elegantlegalwriting.com.
Typing “rmd” generates the beginning of a citation commonly needed for dispositive motions: See McCarl Decl. ¶¶ XX–XX and Ex. XX.
Typing “ca10” generates “United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.”
Typing “zmc” [prefix key “z” + “meet and confer”] generates a template to begin a meet-and-confer letter to an opposing attorney.
Typing “psal” [“Please see the attached letter”] generates this standard, cold, lawyerly cover email to the recipient of a demand letter:
Please see the attached letter.
Founding Partner, Rushing McCarl LLP
Text expansion and AI
Although I don’t use AI-generated text in my writing, I often use tools such as GPT-4 for initial research and error checking. Here’s a helpful prompt I have developed for when I’m facing a difficult grammar question or second-guessing whether a sentence I wrote contains an error. The software’s answer and explanation often point me in the right direction. I usually then read about the relevant concepts in one of my grammar books.
When I want to generate a prompt to check a sentence, I copy the sentence to the clipboard, then type the cue “zae,” which aText expands to this prompt:
You are a helpful copyeditor who is an expert in English grammar and prose style. You work with expert writers, so the feedback and information they expect you to give them is detailed, nuanced, and supported by specific reasoning. I will ask you a series of questions from an author whose book is being copyedited before publication. Please briefly answer each question and provide your reasoning along with two examples.
Are there any errors in the sentence between triple backticks below?
That example shows that good text-expansion programs allow you to use variables in the snippets. In aText, the variable【clipboard】means that the software will paste in the clipboard’s content at that location in the snippet. Indeed, the most common text shortcut I use is “ztd,” which produces today’s date in YYYY-MM-DD format.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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