8 essential tools for professional writers

These online (and on-leash) assistants can help you gather and develop ideas, create workable first drafts and hone your writing projects.

I’m sentimental about many things, but not writing tools. 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, but which are my favorites?

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. 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-size Field Notes read like one long, weird list of things I might source from a Content Store, if such thing as a Content Store existed: blog post ideas, projects, things I read that I think are cool, words I want to look up later.

Why take notes? Because I approach content with a mind like water, which I learned to do 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. Because I also have a mind that ideas easily flow out of, I need someplace to pool them.

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

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 allergy to Evernote.

2. Trello

Trello is a 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.

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.

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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 are not created equal, of course, so I try to seek out primary and reputable sources. Like what? Like these:

  • Major media outlets (The New York Times, The 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 ought to be aware of the agenda (and disclose the source as well as potential vested interests 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 inform the specific 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 enables me to collect examples I want to research or reference later for use in a post or a presentation. I used to email myself links, and then I’d lose them in my bloated inbox.

Pocket enables me to tag items for easy searching; that’s helpful if I’m saving content for specific presentations or columns I know I’ll be creating. For example, I stored a bunch of great videos tagged “Wistia” for my presentation at WistiaFest 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:

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 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. (I do almost all my writing 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.

6. My dog Abby

It feels weird to call Abby a “tool,” but given that she can’t read (as far as I can tell), she won’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 vital 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 by the next time you go back to it.

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

7. HemingwayApp, Grammarly

A human editor is crucial 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 convoluted sentences.

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.)

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

8. Human editor

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

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.

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.

That’s my list.

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

Ann Handley is the chief content officer of MarketingProfs and the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.” A version of this article originally appeared on AnnHandley.com.

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