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What writing tools will help you produce your best work?

Last week, two interviewers asked me about the tools I’d recommend for writing. One of them asked about writerly things I might covet the way some people do—like first editions of favorite books, or fountain pens, or antique Underwoods. (Not to be confused with other kinds of Underwoods.)

I’m sentimental about a lot of things, but not about writing tools I use. Instead, I look for frictionless tools that ease the process, not complicate it.

Part 6 of Everybody Writes is stuffed full of a bajillion tools that can help a content creator be more efficient and hale: But which are my faves?

I used to think that tools alone held a kind of mysticism.

When I was in middle school, my mother bought me my own IBM Selectric electric typewriter. It came in a hard plastic case with a handle, like a valise.

The Selectric was technically “portable,” even if it was as heavy as a Honda Civic and, plugged in, produced a persistent, unmelodic vibration and muffled drone—not unlike the inside of a jet at 30,000 feet.

It was considered a tool for writers even more so than a tool for business: Author Jane Smiley once described it as “a writer’s machine if ever there was one.” It had correction tape (!), different fonts, and some crude capacity for this new thing called “word processing.”

In other words, the Selectric was a crossover machine, providing those perceptive enough with the first inklings (ha!) of the power of personal computing that was just around the corner.

But I didn’t appreciate any of that. I loved my Selectric for a more primal reason. I might’ve been working alone in my room, but I imagined that the tips of my teenage fingers hammering on the hard plastic keys connected me to writers everywhere collectively tapping out a thrilling order of existence.

Does that sound dramatic?

It was. And I’m rolling my eyes at myself right now, too. At 14 my life was small and suburban, predictable and ordinary.

And so, sitting at my desk, under the poster of a kitten hanging with one paw hooked on a tree limb with the words, Hang in There, Baby, Friday’s Coming, I imagined myself part of something charged, awesome, and extraordinary.

Not the actual poster. But close.

Not the actual poster. But close.

But it’s not the wand, it’s the wizard, to paraphrase Duff Goldman.

It sounds romantic to say that I run a fountain pen over quality bond paper in my tiny writing house.

But who am I kidding? I’m a world-class procrastinator. Anything that’s a barrier to writing—like finding where I last left that fountain pen, or lugging a Selectric out of a closet—erects another hurdle in my way.

So what are those frictionless tools I actually use for writing? What are the things I use every single day, for almost every post I write?

Here they are, in the order I use them:

1. Moleskine, Field Notes

I don’t keep a journal, because I don’t have the patience or discipline or interest to write only for myself. But I do use these tools to record minutiae, ephemera, and thoughts and observations I might be able to use somewhere, somehow, someday.

The pages of my Moleskine notebook and pocket-sized Field Notes read like one long, weird shopping list of things I might source from a Content Store, if such a thing as a Content Store existed: blog post ideas, projects, things I read that I think are cool, words I need to look up later.

My last entry: “Bowdlerize—?”

(It’s a verb that means “to remove material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, especially with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective.”)

Bowlderize

Why take notes? Because I approach content with a mind like water, as I learned as a journalist. The mind-like-water content creator finds stories and allows them to flow into and reside in the crevices of the mind. I’m down with that. But because I also have a mind that ideas easily flow out of, I need someplace to…. well, pool them.

Why not some other online tool, like Evernote? Writing an idea down in my own hand gives that idea more context, weight, and heft.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the pen, or the muscle memory of it, but all I know is that when I read it later, I’m better able to recall where I was and what I was thinking when I wrote it down. Also, I have a self-diagnosed allergic to Evernote, as Bryan Kramer and I discussed earlier this week.

(WebMD confirmed as much.)

(I’m kidding.)

(Kind of.)

2. Trello

Trello is a kind of project management tool that takes the place of Post-it Notes and highlighters or scraps of paper or my pocket lists. I’ve newly committed to Trello to help me create more consistently, and to keep things on track. I figured if I include it here you’ll hold me accountable, as well.

Blog post or column ideas that move from fuzzy notion to reality get added to a Trello card on a Trello board I titled “Idears.” The title is partially a nod to my Boston roots, partially a reminder to not take things so seriously, and partially a reminder to create content I love.

3. Google

Google is my primary research tool, and the first place I start rooting around for data to give a story context and credibility. Data before declaration, in other words.

All data is not created equal, of course. So I try and seek out primary and reputable sources. Like what? Like…

  • Major media outlets (NY Times, Washington Post)
  • Government agencies
  • Original research reports
  • Well-known experts
  • Authoritative nongovernment agencies (Pew Research, for one)

Beware of hidden agendas or what else might be fueling a one person’s (or agency’s) point of view. That doesn’t mean the source is not credible, but you need to be aware of the agenda (and disclose the source as well as potential vested or conflicts of interest).

Two other Google places I sometimes check, depending on the topic:

Google Trends, because it allows me to see what others have been searching for over time, graph how a term has been searched for via Google , and pinpoint where those searchers were located. Trends can help inform the specific words or language I might use in a post.

Think with Google is a research hub that aggregates case studies, articles, infographics, interviews, and other things for 14 industries. The site is updated weekly. I like subscribing to the newsletter, because there’s sometimes a nugget or two in there worth adding to Pocket. (See next tool.)

4. Pocket

Pocket is a virtual pocket for collecting treasures. It allows me to collect examples I want to research or reference later, in a post or in a presentation. I used to email myself links, and then promptly lose them in my bloated inbox.

I like the way Pocket allows me to tag items for easy searching; that’s helpful for me if I’m using it to save content for specific presentations or columns I know I’ll be creating. For example, I have a whole bunch of great videos tagged “Wistia” because I’m presenting at WistiaFest later this month.

5. Microsoft Word

I write in Word, on my laptop, using it to create my Ugly First Draft. Here’s how:

First, I create a list of things I want to include in a piece. It’s like a grocery list—only instead of kale, soy milk, yogurt… it’s a list of the key points I want to make. The list for this post originally looked like this:

Writing Tools

Then I go back and flesh out each point into sentences and paragraphs, following my Writing GPS.

Writing is thinking for me—so I never dictate a first draft. That’d be like asking me to drive a car blindfolded: I could do it for a bit, I suppose. But it would quickly get pretty problematic.

I also don’t use any productivity tools that offer clean minimalist writing experiences or manipulate you into a distraction-free zone.

My life is one big distraction for me, so I just deal with it. (That said, I get almost all of my writing done on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when the life part is relatively quiet.)

I use Scrivener writing software for longer projects, because it’s great for composing, structuring, and manipulating long and difficult documents. But it’s totally overkill for most of the shorter content I write.

6. My dog Abby

Abby

It feels weird to call Abby a “tool.” But since she can’t read (as far as I can tell), she can’t be offended.

I’m using her metaphorically here, because leashing up a dog for a walk or going down to the corner for a slice of pie or whatever you might to do take a break is key to the writing process.

I rarely publish the same day that I write (it’s happened just once in recent memory).

Walking away from any writing is equivalent to putting a rock-hard avocado in a paper bag—it ripens almost magically the next time you go back to it.

The second pass a day later is generally where I prune the fat, hone the clarity, and weave in humor or asides that reflect my style and sensibilities.

7. HemingwayApp, Grammarly

A human editor is key to creating good content. But for a first pass after writing I use either of these tools to flag not just spelling errors or typos and punctuation problems but also weak construction, passive voice, or sentences that are difficult to understand.

The software flags all that and more, and then recommends fixes (which you can either accept or ignore).

It’s also a humbling process. I ran a pre-edited version of this piece through Grammarly, which termed it “adequate,” at best. (Spring for the paid version. It’s worth it.)

Grammarly

 

HemingwayApp also assigns a readability level. I try for right around the middle of high school, because no one will complain that you made something too simple to understand.

HemingwayApp

8. Human Editor

Running this by my favorite human editor is the final step in the process, before I hit publish.

And when I say “editor,” I mean someone trained as an editor—not just a colleague, friend, or another writer. Those types can find typos or proofread, but they can’t supplant a professional editor.

Writers and editors have very different skills, and very often the person who is good at one isn’t good at the other.

The best editors act as the bridge between writer and audience—helping the writer make his or her points with clarity, brevity, and respect for those reading, including the audience’s time.

I think of a good editor as the best advocate for the reader, which is why companies that don’t use editors end up hurting themselves.

What Am I Missing?

So that’s my list.

What am I missing? What do you use to produce your best work?


 

everybodywrites-squareWant to bulk up your writing muscles and get the content bod you’ve always coveted? Check out the MarketingProfs Writing Bootcamp, which kicks off June 11.

Register with code ANNLIKESME to save $200. (More if you are a MarketingProfs member or alum).


 


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59 Responses to 8 Writing Tools I Use Every Day

  1. Awesome post, Ann.

    I’m a notebook girl at heart, too. That’s where I write down my post ideas; I never feel inspired looking at a digital tool. I need my notebook to unleash my inner crazy!

    Also, I’ve been hearing too many raving reviews about Scrivener! Really need to check it out now!

    Thanks for this great post!

    • Ann Handley says:

      Yes, Maham! I like Scrivener for ambitious projects — but it’s unnecessary for the smaller stuff.

    • Ginger says:

      Scrivener is the bomb for novels or novel-length projects, but I feel like I just touch the surface of its functionality. It’s a deep and complicated beast.

  2. Rick Carter says:

    Hi .. tried to subscribe to trends and think with .. checking out grammarly beta? Thank you!

    Enjoyed post and sending great thanks! Rick =)

  3. Jeanette says:

    Hi Ann,
    First – loved you at Marketing United! Every time i put on my shirt with the little emma girl on it I giggle and think of you.

    I’m a big fan of little journals that fit in my purse too. I use the voice memo on my phone for when those flashes of inspiration come while I’m on the go and can’t sit and jot things down. Every now and then I go through the memos and journal and create word docs for each separate idea. I’ve got writing folders for each year – with subfolders for completed/published pieces, and another folder just called ‘fragments’ for random bits and pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere but often eventually find their way into something.

    I’m a big fan of an exercise i call the daily five – it began in a group I’m part of online, cataloging five little bits and pieces of our days, or thoughts, beliefs and dreams. I found, over time, it became a tremendous tool for honing my attention to the smaller details – so I still use this for myself and for my writing clients to help them bring their attention to their days.

    Timed free writes (which safari autocorrected to ferrets three times in a row) and creating specific rituals around writing (mine include whiskey, naturally) so that the muse knows it’s time for business are helpful for me too – I too have honed my avoidance mechanisms to a finely honed level of expertise.

    Great post – can’t wait to see what others suggest.
    Jeanette

    • Ann Handley says:

      Jeannette:

      Can I just say that I love this paragraph?

      “Timed free writes (which safari autocorrected to ferrets three times in a row) and creating specific rituals around writing (mine include whiskey, naturally) so that the muse knows it’s time for business are helpful for me too – I too have honed my avoidance mechanisms to a finely honed level of expertise.”

      You’re hilariously awesome.

      Your friend,

      Ann/Emma

  4. Stephanie says:

    You have a great list of tools. I use some of the common writing tools as well but you gave me some others to look at, so thank you!

  5. Hey Ann

    Honestly, I thought this was just going to be one of the million other ‘Writing Tools’ posts floating around the web! I came in with a closed mind – but your words lightened my heart, widened my smile and, most importantly, taught me to NEVER assume!

    Thank you for your amusing anecdotes and a FUN article that flowed like water into the crevices of my brain 😉 #HUGS

    Kitto

    PS: No. 6 is my favorite tool and I ENJOYED your analogy of an avocado in a bag! WOW!

  6. Kip Meacham says:

    Thanks for a great list of tools. Thanks for the insights, too, Ann.

    I cut my teeth on an IBM Selectric (when I actually learned to type)…

    Your post inspired me. I found an app and .WAV files to make my notebook sound like an IBM Selectric. (See http://fieldp.com/myblog/2013/how-to-make-your-computer-sound-like-a-typewriter/)

    Who says you can’t time travel?

  7. Tammy Allen says:

    I love pocket! Thank you. We use Asana instead of Trello.

  8. Stan Dubin says:

    You did mention Evernote but not as a tool specifically and I cannot live without Evernote. The ability to grab an entire web page, an article from a web page, a “simplified article” from a web page (much easier to read) or a selection from a web page and then insert them into the appropriate folder is pure bliss for me.

    Well, I’m sure I’d live if Evernote disappeared tomorrow, but I might be seen holding a placard on highway ramps that said, “Will work for a good web clipper!”

    And Scrivener has become a real asset as I got my first Kindle book up without any issues.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I hear how much others (like you) love Evernote and I feel like I missed that day at school. Cannot. Get. The. Hang.

      But at least we agree on Scrivenor, Stan…!

      • Stan & Ann: I’m a big Evernote user. It’s my variation on a 1st Ugly Draft. When I find great stuff I want to use in a future post (like the suggested tools and comments here), I’ll clip it, highlight the key phrases, and write my notes and frame up the outline in a quick, ugly brain dump. I’ll then return to Evernote when I have my designated writing time. I’ve been practicing this hack for the past few months and it’s making me become more efficient and productive. Thanks for shedding light on other tools like Trello. BTW, when I misplace my Moleskine notebook, the day comes to a friggin’ stop 😉

  9. I use something called “the phantom deadline” when I’m blocked. You just pretend something is due in an hour and start writing.

    Sometimes the first couple of paragraphs are pretty basic. Generally, the lede pops up in the third to fourth graf. Then I cut and paste it and start again.

    I also recommend getting yourself a writing buddy, i.e., someone to call occasionally (or regularly) to talk about upcoming articles. As you talk it out, take notes — you may find yourself dictating the meat of the piece.

    Finally: I’ve found HARO and ProfNet to be wonderful sources of expert interviews, including regular folks who happen to do/create/sell/teach/survive whatever it is you’re writing about that day.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Good thoughts, Donna. On some level don’t you know that the deadline is actually phantom, though? I feel like I’d call my own bluff….

      Agree on that “running start” stuff. So often the true lede (lead) is 3 or 4 paragraphs in.

  10. Reginald says:

    What a terrific article. I need my pad and fancy pen or mechanical pencil to make order and lists. The other thing is a clean desk. I have to clean my workspace before I can start.

    I love prowritingaid.com and I use Grammarly as well. I will second and third you on a professional editor to give things a once over.

    Ann, I just want to thank you for your amazing personal, informative tips and posts.

    I follow you on twitter and you have become a terrific mentor in terms of what to do on social media. I never have the sense that you are posting just for the sake of posting.

    So, thanks for this post and all the others.

    Best,

    reggie
    @regrenardd

  11. Vinish Garg says:

    Beautiful post. I thought you would list Evernote too because it is a really great tool to organize notes, thoughts and research work.

    And, I loved the Abby reference; it deserved this space after such a contribution. 🙂

  12. I also use Grammarly and I love it. I wouldn’t publish anything online without first using this tool. And it’s refreshing to hear you say that you use Microsoft Word. It seems that more and more people are using Scrivner but even though I have an iMac, I still use Word. I guess old habits die hard.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I do love Scrivener for books/long docs. But even if people love to hate on Word… it’s my jam, for better or worse! Thanks for chiming in, Frances.

  13. Hi Ann,

    (Great connecting with you on twitter earlier today!)

    I am a marketing professional turned entrepreneur. I build http://www.writwellapp.com to help me mirror my writing with my thinking. Since many of us think associatively and write linearly – I found most tools most lacking in their ability to help organize thinking (notes to self and research) and writing in one workspace. I found Word and Google Docs too monolithic (I fear a blank piece of paper!), while Evernote is great for note taking/organization. We designed WriteWell to provide an organized writing workspace to concurrently visualize a high level storyboard, easily move chunks of prose around & organize research (hyperlinks, audio interviews, documents). We’ve also included a bunch of templates for struggling writers (middle school, high school, college and professionals) to help scaffold their writing. We plan on adding scaffolded templates for content/collateral soon e.g. blogs, case studies, white papers to address the needs of marketers (in tech) here in San Francisco.

    Hope you’ll get a chance to check out http://www.writewellapp.com. Would love to know what you think! (adi@writewellapp.com).

    Thanks,

    Adi

  14. And I thought I was the only one on earth who was allergic to Evernote. I guess we both ditched the same day at school when they had the Evernote assembly:)

  15. Very through and really detailed to a fault, only because you got off track and went into your process which kind of strayed from the focus of your tools, at times. I would have been thinking more about tools as being typewriters, paper, pencils, post its, paper clips, highlighters, magazines, dictionaries, the little brown book, images, or of course G-2 ink pens (my favorite). I loved the Google inclusion because I make use of Googgle a lot. I would have wanted to include a lot of the tools you mentioned but to have more of the why would have made it more fun. For instance, if you liked to use paper with lines but hated the college ruled type because the line width was to thin or you liked fine ink pens instead of bold ones because you have a naturally fancy handwriting and fine pens added more elegance to you handwriting style. Sharing some things like that would kind of draw me in a little more. Maybe telling me that you liked to use the fat pencils like you used when you were first learning to write because they keep you in touch with your creative side, like playing with a slinky or doodling on a pad does would have not only made me laugh but I would have recalled an earlier time of innocence and maybe that awkward little girl who use to twirl her ponytail. That is the kind of stuff that would have made this tool share more fun but maybe that is just because I would rank elementary on that HemingwayApp. If I did, I wouldn’t be offended. It would probably just make me write a children’s book or some Customer Service Cleft Notes or something. Has anyone ever done the Customer Service Cleft Notes thing? Anyway, I’m really glad you shared all these tools because I am certainly taking notes! Thanks Ann. I knew when I followed you years ago, l was onto something.

  16. Jack Vincent says:

    Thanks, Ann.

    Great post. You’re always providing value.

    Where you use Moleskin, I use the “Notes” app on my iPhone (and I believe Android has similar). I put chapter titles there for my book. I also put blog post ideas there, and I’ve even written poetry there!

    For research (are you ready for this?) a few Facebook pages were really valuable. As an example, I did a lot of research in the area of psychology. I happened to “like” the Psychology Today page on FB. Lo and behold, some great chapter ideas were coming to me in my FB feed.

    Facebook and Psychology Today figured me out pretty quickly. Since I was passing on articles about brain plasticity and clinical studies, yet clicking through to anything related to love, relationships and sales, these types of articles showed up in my FB feed every day… and Psychology Today received quite a few attributed quotes and references, too!

    So many tools to choose from. Thanks again!

  17. Aimee Beck says:

    Hey Ann — great post — I always enjoy the conversational tone in your writing 🙂 I post sticky notes all over my office walls of (like you) cool words I’ve read or heard, sayings, CTAs, etc. It is a great way to keep the creative juices flowing.

    I’ve also been driven from actual sticky notes to mobile device sticky notes — simply because I can never seem to find a pen that works when I’m out and about. Funny thing is that I still transfer them to my actual office wall. Sitting and staring at the walls is actually a productive practice at my place!

    I also rely on my dog, Abby! She’s a cute little pug who loves to get out of the office and hit the walking trails. It helps clear her little head. Mine, too.

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  19. Jay Artale says:

    Hi Ann … I use Scrivener for my books, blogging and all my freelance writing. It’s an amazing content management tool. It just takes a little bit of setting up at the front end, but saves time in the long-run … and let’s face it, it’s all about saving time nowadays! 🙂 I’m still on the fence about task trackers… hopping between Asana and Trello, and a few others .. just can’t seem to settle on “the perfect solution”.

    One tool that has really revolutionized how I work is Toggl .. a free, simple time tracker that I use to keep myself in check with where I spend my time. It’s fabulous for freelancing too – as you can generate a simple summary of activities. I’ve found that it has really helped me with being able to estimate how long a task really takes.

    And last… but by no means least … EVERNOTE … love it, couldn’t live without it.

    Jay

  20. Sereyna says:

    I just signed up for Pocket and made your web site my first “add.” Many thanks for sharing!

  21. Nina says:

    Hello, Ann!

    I thought you might be interested in adding another useful resource to this article!

    Power Thesaurus (http://www.powerthesaurus.org) is an easy-to-follow, crowdsourced online thesaurus.

    Hope this helps!

    Kind Regards,

    Nina McEwen

  22. Kono says:

    How about Wording Lab that helps with word choice? https:/www./wordinglab.com

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  24. Chris Ford says:

    I’ve recently re-discovered an old favorite: a big fat red pencil. You just can’t beat marking up a printout with old-school copywriter’s marks and a lot of arrows and strike-throughs to make you feel like you’re getting some serious editing done 😀

  25. I use Evernote many times every day.
    And….. my dog Happy 🙂

    http://webwoman.dk/hundeejeren/

  26. Kell Inkston says:

    Great post. Dog’s are perhaps the finest creative tool known to mankind.

  27. Lee Gillette says:

    Ann, I enjoyed your article so much! I like your tools. I also like your book.

    It’s become a kind of Bible that I go back to when I forget where I’ve been, or where I might be headed.

    You’re savvy and down-to-earth with a style that inspires. And I can tell you love what you do.

    But you know the best thing about your writing? When I read it, you feel like a friend. A best friend.

    Now I’m looking forward to early tomorrow morning. That’s MY best time to write.

    Thanks for the gift, Ann. Enjoy your career.

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  29. Leona C says:

    Thanks so much for reminding me of Grammarly! I heard about it some time ago and wanted to try it out, but somehow I got busy with finals and stuff and forgot to check it out. Love the plagiarism check aspect!

    I use Google Docs rather than Microsoft Word whenever possible, because once you get used to its Auto-Save feature, you don’t want to go back to using Word’s unreliable, slow background saving (which I rarely get to recover whenever Word cranks up)

    My other tools:

    2. Google — my fact-checker, dictionary, thesaurus, and more, all rolled into one.
    3. Google Keep — for quick-saving of blogging ideas (it’s both on my phone and on my desktop)
    4. WordPress – my blogging platform of choice
    5. Feedly + gReader – allows me to view my RSS feeds offline and scour through articles for blogging ideas
    6. Diigo – for academic writing. It saved me during my thesis writing!

    And now I will potentially add Grammarly for my 7th tool. The final spot is reserved for my cats, Ice and Lee. If not for them sleeping on my laptop and making my sticky keys spazz out, I would have been able to write more. 😉

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  31. Jeanne says:

    Thanks, Ann, for your practical suggestions. Just shared some this week in my content marketing training along with your book, Everybody Writes.

  32. Jayne Bodell says:

    I fall into the Evernote category. I’ve embraced this tool like leftover brats. Hey…I’m from Wisconsin. What do you expect?
    When I’m brainstorming, I really like my pad of paper and purple pen.

    FYI…I loved your book, “Everybody Writes” and will be proudly displaying on my shelf of reference books.

  33. JL Pattison says:

    My writing tools are the iPad (hardware) and Pages (software word processor). Even after trying the Microsoft Word app on the iPad, I still use (and recommend) Apple’s Pages app.
    http://pattisonblog.com/2015/07/20/microsoft-word-vs-apples-pages/

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  35. Lynn Usrey says:

    Thank you for the list, Ann!
    I agree with Tammy Allen – Asana is better then Trello. About Grammarly – I know that their algorithm doesn’t catch even elementary english mistakes, like “I was been to London” . So I don’t think this tool would be useful for professional writer.
    I use https://unplag.com/ to check my text for uniqueness because even unintentional plagiarism could ruin writer’s or journalist’s career =( I try to be careful with it.

  36. Including a “human editor” as a tool seems a little extreme, but rest of the tools are quite interesting 🙂

    BTW don’t forget Grammarly, a tool I can’t live without.

  37. Cate Hogan says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article! Four years ago I also left my job as a marketing manager in Sydney to do something. I’d always dreamed of: writing and editing romance novels full time. Anyways, here are also my 8 best tips and tricks for those wanting to follow a similar path http://catehogan.com/tools_for_writers/

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  39. Samrat Singh says:

    Very helpful content, and thanks for sharing this with us. I use couple of these tools but many of those are to be explored. This post gave me some new ideas which I can implement on my sites too. Looking forward to see more valuable posts like this. I am bookmarking this for future reference. Thanks for sharing.

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  41. Thomas Butler says:

    Great post, Ann!I also have a dog:) and will try your advice. I would like to add one more tool – plagiarism detector! Look through the list of good plagiarism checkers.Maybe you’ll find something for you! I use “Unplag” to check my text for uniqueness. Thanks for such nice set of tools;)

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