Writers (and everyone else), backup your work!

When I worked in computer repair, a client once asked a colleague of mine, “Should I back up my data?”

“Well, that depends,” my colleague replied. “How valuable is your data?” The client’s eyes widened in horror. He needed to start backing up his data now!

WhereIsMyFile
My file is gone!
(Photo by StartUpStockPhotos, licensed under CC0.)

Last week, I realized I had lost an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel. I was working on chapter 21 in Scrivener, and when I flipped back to chapter 17 to check something, I found the text of chapter 19 where chapter 17 should have been. In chapter 19 was an older, unedited version of chapter 19. Chapter 17 was gone!

I know exactly how the problem happened (it was user error), but this article isn’t about the cause. It’s about the solution. It took me less than five minutes to restore my missing chapter and get back to writing.

My work is valuable. Therefore, I back it up. Here’s how I do it.

(Note: I use Windows-based computers, but these concepts can easily be applied to other computer technologies.)

My Backup
Ignore the “Documents” sub-folder of your home folder. The go-to place to save your important files is the “OneDrive” sub-folder. My essential files — like my novel’s Scrivener files — are saved to the local copy of my Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage account, so every time I save the file, it is backed up to the Internet. Besides an instant backup, this also makes it very easy to start working on either my desktop or my laptop, wherever I happen to be at the time. Alternatives to OneDrive include Dropbox.

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save. Easy to restore all your files to a new computer. Easy to work from anywhere, even via a web browser for certain file types. OneDrive is free for limited space and reasonably priced for additional storage.

Limitations: If you accidentally save a file full of “lorem ipsum” instead of your document, your file full of “lorem ipsum” will be uploaded to the cloud. If you accidentally delete a file, it is deleted from your OneDrive per Microsoft’s retention policies.

The Backup of My Backup
I take a “belt and suspenders” approach to backups. One backup is not enough. My backup needs a backup. A chief reason for this is the limitation mentioned above: an automatic to-the-cloud backup will happily backup your mistakes. What happens when you realize what you need is the version from four saves ago?

 

Carbonite
Carbonite’s Windows Explorer interface for recovery of past file versions.

That’s why I subscribe to Carbonite. All of my desktop computer’s files are automatically backed up to the cloud, including different versions of the same files. This is the line of defense that saved my missing chapter. While OneDrive had the incorrect version of my problem chapter, the version I’d accidentally destroyed was available via Carbonite. I restored it from my cloud-based backup, and my work was back.

 

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save, including past versions of the same file.

Limitations: Carbonite is designed for disaster recovery, not for easy access to the same files between multiple machines. Also, there are retention policies set by Carbonite for both still-existing and deleted files.

(And yes, Carbonite’s name is a Star Wars reference.)

Returning to any past point
If you’ve implemented my suggestions to this point, you have a backup and a backup of your backup. Your data is now extremely well-defended against disaster. You are in the top 1% of data protection. And it might be enough. However, if you need an even more granular way to go back in time to specific versions of files, even the “belt and suspenders” approach might be lacking.

Specific to writing, if you use Scrivener, you ought to be taking snapshots. Snapshots are a feature of Scrivener in which a point-in-time copy of a document is taken and is always available in a read-only state. It’s a no-brainer to take a snapshot of every chapter of your book at the end of each significant draft. You might also want to take a snapshot before making a particularly brutal round of edits, or before revising the entire chapter from the start. I won’t go into the details of how to take a snapshot, but there are plenty of articles on the subject available.

Finally, in the software engineering world, we use version control systems (VCS) to store our code. Every distinct version of a code file is checked into VCS, and therefore any distinct version can be retrieved from it. Different versions from any two time periods can be compared. A version from two years ago can be recovered as quickly as a version from two hours ago (so long as someone deliberately checked in the changes; committing a new version to source control is not an automatic operation).

Best of all, when combined with the “belt and suspenders” approach, the database containing all your version history can exist in multiple places and with multiple backups — or can be stored in a cloud-based VCS provider (like GitHub) that can handle redundant backups for you. And there really is no retention policy, so long as you have enough storage to hold all the past versions you wish to keep.

The limitation of this system is its complexity. If you’re not already familiar with it, there is a learning curve, and it could be steep. Also, VCS may be overkill for most writers. But if you absolutely need to be able to go back to any daily (or hourly!) version of your work from now until forever, storing your writing in Git or another VCS is probably your most flexible option.

No backup isn’t an option
Stop and ask yourself: if your laptop’s hard drive died right now, how much work would you lose? What would be your next step? Would you just need to sign in to a different computer and resume typing? Or would it be time to drink, cry, and bargain with God?

It’s easy to ignore creating a backup strategy because, much like life insurance, it’s something that can be a bit of a hassle to get setup, especially for something you hope you’ll never have to use. But someday, when Future You needs that backup, they’ll be really happy you took the time. Your work is valuable. Make sure it’s resilient to disaster.

(Note: I received no compensation of any kind from Microsoft, Carbonite, or any other company for mentioning their product in this article.)

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