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.)

The Seven Point System, Finale

Happy Friday! Here’s part five of Dan Wells‘s presentation on Seven Point Story Structure, the grand finale in which Dan demonstrates how all of your seven point plots can come together into key scenes that prove the power is in you!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD-T-ku4ynk]

Seven Point Story Structure Videos:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4

The Seven Point System, Part 4

Happy Friday! Here’s part four of Dan Wells‘s presentation on the Seven Point Story Structure, in which Dan finally defines “Ice Monster Prologue.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WC_WWErNd8]

Seven Point Story Structure Videos:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3

The Seven Point System, Part 3

Happy Friday! Here’s part three of Dan Wells‘s presentation on the Seven Point Story Structure, in which Dan shows that even Jane Austen used the Seven Point Story Structure.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNZDL9-dN8k]

Seven Point Story Structure Videos:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2

Mad-Eye Moody’s Advice for Writers, Part 2

HP04_CH013
Illustration by Mary GrandPré

This two-part series is about Mad-Eye Moody’s advice to Harry Potter on how to successfully pass the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Part one covered play to your strengths.

Bring What You Need
For Harry, this meant using a summoning charm to bring him his Quidditch broom. For the writer, this means making sure you have all of the tools you need.

Unless you write everything longhand, your most valuable tool is likely your keyboard. Are you able to type well on yours? Do your fingers hurt after sprinting out a couple thousand words? Are the keys so close together that you regularly make fat-finger typos? Software engineer Scott Hanselman likes to say, “There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die.” If your keyboard doesn’t feel like an extension of your fingers, rip it out and get a new one. Do you use a laptop that has a bad keyboard? Get a new laptop, or just get a good new USB keyboard, or get a docking station with which you can use a new keyboard. When you sit down to write, bring what you need.

What software are you using to compose and save your hard work? Is Microsoft Word working out OK for you? Do you wish you could use something more powerful, something more geared for professional writers like Scrivener? What are you waiting for? Bring what you need.

Do you like what you’ve written but wish you could get another opinion? Bring what you need and find yourself a writing critique group. Do you wish you had a paper notebook to carry with you wherever you go to jot down ideas as they come to you? Go to the nearest office supply store and get what you need. Do you really wish you had a more powerful grammar checker? Subscribe to Grammarly and bring what you need.

This is your writing. This is what is likely one of the most important things in your world. Why on Earth would you not equip yourself with tools to help you do it to the best of your ability? Bring what you need. If there is some physical or bit-based or human resource that you need, buy or find or hire that tool. And do it yesterday.

And yes, I get it that sometimes the best tools cost the money you need to pay the rent and put Ramen on the table. I’m not saying you should become a starving artist (though I do like to support starving artists when I can). All I’m saying is if writing is a must and not a should to you, the tools that will best let you do it are necessities, not luxuries.

Treating yourself well is like casting a summoning charm: accio success!

The Seven Point System, Part 2

Happy Friday! Here’s part two of Dan Wells‘s excellent presentation on the Seven Point Story Structure. This one contains one of my favorite quotes on writing, a quote I turn to for comfort and affirmation often:

There is no outline in the world, especially for a genre novel, that doesn’t sound stupid when you describe it to somebody.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrP9604BEOM]

Seven Point Story Structure Videos:

  1. Part 1

Tech for Writers: custom dictionary search from your browser

Did you know about the Google trick where you can get the definition of any word by searching for “define <word>”?

DefineNincompoop

It’s a neat trick, and the result that Google gives you includes their ultra cool “use over time” feature, sometimes.

NincompoopOverTime

But if you’re like me, you may have a favorite dictionary. (Mine is Merriam-Webster.) Wouldn’t it be a great writing tool if you could somehow program a web browser like Google Chrome so that when you search for “define <word>” you get the result from your favorite dictionary?

Here’s how to do it!

First, go to your favorite dictionary and search for a word. When the results page comes up, pay particular attention to the URL — the website address. You will need this soon.

NincompoopMW

Next you have to go into Chrome settings. Click the hamburger icon near the top, or use the keyboard, Luke and enter chrome://settings/searchEngines into the address bar. The browser will open a short list of “Default search settings” and a likely very long list of “Other search engines.”

ChromeSearchSettings1

Scroll all the way to the bottom of this window and you’ll see three text boxes.

ChromeSearchSettings2

In these three boxes, enter a name for the search engine (anything you want), the keyword you want to use (in this case: define), and finally the “URL with %s in place of query.” What’s that? That’s the website address I said to remember. Just replace whatever word you searched for with %s.

ChromeSearchSettings3

Click Done and you’re done. Now go to the address bar of Chrome and type: define nincompoop, or whatever word you want to look up, and when you press Enter, your result will come not from Google, but from your favorite dictionary.

CustomDictionaryDefined

Power User Tip: you can do the same thing with the keyword “thesaurus” and your favorite thesaurus.

The Seven Point System, Part 1

It was inevitable that at some point, I was going to feature my favorite writing video series as one of my Friday Videos. So here it is! Dan Wells is by far my favorite of the four authors on Writing Excuses. His advice is always spot-on, never pretentious, and is delivered with wicked humor. Just like the video series you’re about to see!

If you’ve never seen Wells’s presentation on the Seven Point Story Structure (sometimes called 7PP for Seven Point Plot), you’re in for a treat. He not only explains it thoroughly, he puts all sorts of stories from all sorts of genres through it to show off its universal usefulness.

I can’t remember if it is in this video series or in an episode of Writing Excuses, but I’m fairly certain I once heard Wells say that he doesn’t necessarily consciously make a 7PP for each of his books, but when he gets stuck on a plot, he falls back to this technique to figure out why. I’m much the same.

Using Scrivener and Grammarly together

My writing group is discussing some great editing tools including Hemingway, ProWritingAid, and Grammarly. We like all of them, especially Grammarly, but those of us participating in the discussion are also die-hard Scrivener users and none of these tools have any kind of Scrivener plug-in. So what’s a writer to do if he or she wants to use the greatness that is Scrivener along with the excellent editing skills of one of these tools?

I took it upon myself to flex some of my day job (software engineer) skills and perform a little trial and error. Of the three tools listed above, the one I’m most interested in is Grammarly, so that’s the one I used. Also, I did all of this on a PC running Scrivener for Windows 1.8.6, Google Chrome, and the Grammarly plug-in for Word 2013.

Copy and Paste from Scrivener to Grammarly
For my first test, I copied the text of my Scrivener document to the clipboard and then pasted it into Grammarly’s online editor. But this technique failed before I could take a single piece of Grammarly’s advice. The copy-and-paste between Scrivener and the Grammarly online editor removed all of my text formattings. “And that ain’t too cool,” to quote Hendrix.

Here’s a sample sentence from Scrivener:
Italics-Original

And here’s the same sentence after being pasted into the Grammarly online editor:
Grammarly-NoItalics

I don’t use italics often, but I don’t want to lose them once I have them in place. And I’d rather not wait and apply them only to my final draft. So this technique failed.

Upload RTF to Grammarly
One advantage Grammarly has over some of its competitors is that in addition to copy-and-paste, you can upload a document file into its online editor. So for my second test, I found the Rich Text File (RTF) for my chapter-in-progress in its Scrivener folder and uploaded it to Grammarly. This technique didn’t work for me either. First, even with an uploaded RTF file, my formatting was lost. That disqualified it right there. But if that part had worked, Grammarly gives the option of downloading your edited document from their online editor back into its original format. So I downloaded the RTF of my original doc and then compared the original RTF to the Grammarly-edited one using a simple diff tool (WinMerge).

Scrivener-to-Grammarly
(Scrivener original RTF on the left, Grammarly edited RTF on the right.)

Eww! Grammarly changed the formatting of every single paragraph in the document. The paragraph formatting was so different from what Scrivener creates, I didn’t even try opening this new RTF there. Another fail!

Open RTF in Word with Grammarly plug-in and save it back to RTF
One advantage Grammarly has over some of its competitors is it offers a Microsoft Word plug-in. After you install it, you don’t even have to use the Grammarly web editor. You open your document in Word, apply Grammarly’s suggestions, save, and get on with life. For this test, I made a copy of my Scrivener RTF file, opened it in Word, edited one word, and saved it back to RTF. Then I used WinMerge to compare the original RTF to the new one.

Scrivener-to-Word
(Scrivener original RTF on the left, Word edited RTF on the right.)

This was getting embarrassing. This was an even worse mangling than the one Grammarly did to my RTF file. Times New Roman Baltic, what the heck? I don’t even use that font. I’m a Charis SIL man.

Copy-and-Paste from Scrivener to Word, edit, then copy-and-paste from Word to Scrivener
Around this time I was starting to think that to make this work, I was going to have to write some custom code to convert Grammarly RTF into Scrivener RTF. But before I took that route, I wondered what would happen if I copy-and-pasted text from Scrivener into Word, edited it, and then pasted the text back into Scrivener?

The first phase of this test passed. My italicized text made it from Scrivener to a new, blank Word document with the italics intact! But would it survive the return trip? I made a minor change and then copy and pasted the text from Word back into Scrivener, right over the top of the text already there. Then I saved it in Scrivener and compared the original, unedited RTF to the new one.

Scrivener-Copy-Paste-to-Word

Look at that! No mass editing of the formatting code for every paragraph in the document! In Scrivener, the doc looked identical, except the comma I added in Word after “ride” made it back over. Success!

Therefore, the best way to use Scrivener and Grammarly together seems to be:

  1. Copy your text from Scrivener to the clipboard
  2. Paste into Microsoft Word with the Grammarly plug-in installed
  3. Edit away, Ernest Hemingway
  4. Do not save! Instead, copy your text from Word to the clipboard
  5. Back in Scrivener, paste your text right over top of what was already there

This all works because copy and paste between Scrivener and Word keeps formatting intact while copy and paste between Scrivener and web windows doesn’t. Combine that with the Grammarly plug-in for Word and voila, your formatted text now has a relatively painless path between Scrivener and Grammarly and back.

There’s one big drawback to all of this and that is that as of today, Grammarly doesn’t have a plug-in for Microsoft Office on Mac. Boo! But I wonder if copy-and-paste between Scrivener and a browser other than Chrome might keep formatting intact? Or if pasting into Chrome for Mac might keep the formatting intact? If anyone figures out a way to use Scrivener and Grammarly together on Mac while keeping formatting intact, or of an even easier way to do it on Windows, I’d love to hear from you.