Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don't Forget to Back Up!

Last year I posted a reminder about backing up your work. I thought it was a good time to post another version of this. Make sure you don't lose that deathless prose! These guidelines will be relevant if you use a computer. If you write on paper, you still need some way of ensuring all is not lost in the event of disaster. Don't be like Ernest Hemingway, who famously lost all copies of his first novel on a Parisian train ...

These days, more and more people are using Google Docs or some other cloud-based site for storing and editing their work. This has the advantage of taking care of backups for you, but obviously there are trade-offs. If you lose your internet connection you lose access to your documents. Most of us, I suspect, will be writing and storing our work on our own computers. So some sort of reliable back up is essential.

In my view, what you need is a backup that happens automatically. Backing up manually - remembering to copy files to a CD every now and then for example - is too hard. You inevitably forget, or miss out files. The backup is never as reliable as it should be. Besides, remembering to do simple, repetetive tasks like this is what computers do best. In fact, that's pretty much all they do. So if you're not currently backing up, set it all up now and then you can get on with the creative stuff, secure in the knowledge that you're covered in the event of disaster.

In fact, I think what you need are two separate backups. Partly this is for extra security. Mainly it's because they each solve slightly different problems. Neither is particularly tricky to set up. Within an hour or so you can have them both in place. And crucially, they will both be automatic.

Local Backup

This means keeping a copy of all your work on another drive, computer or device to which your computer is directly attached. So, something at your home or office. The point of this is to let you quickly and easily get a document back if you accidentally wipe its contents or delete it. It's easily done. But having a local backup means a potential disaster becomes nothing more terrible than finding your backup copy and restoring it over the original.

So, what you need is a place to put your backup and some software to maintain it. At a pinch, you don't need to buy any extra hardware. You could just back everything up to another folder on your computer's hard drive. But a second drive of some kind is preferable. That way you're covered if your hard drive develops a fault, or if your computer suddenly stops working. If you have two computers networked together in some way, that's ideal. Do a cross-backup so that the important files on each are backed up to the other. Or you could buy an additional hard disk solely for the purposes of backing up to. I use an external USB drive. You pretty much just plug them in to a spare USB socket and you're done.

A writable CD or DVD is another option but I wouldn't particularly recommend them. They tend to be fiddly and unreliable, although they're better than they used to be. Plus you have to mess around with the discs, making sure you put the backup one in after listening to some music, say. Too fiddly. A perfectly good option is to use a memory stick/USB thumb drive. Again just plug one into a spare USB socket and you're sorted. Memory sticks have become incredibly cheap of late, and incredibly capacious too. They might not do for backing up pictures or video but for written documents they're ideal. 2 GB can store a 100,000 word novel a couple of thousand times over. A memory stick is also portable - you can easily take it with you if you're worried about your computer for some reason.

As to software, you just need something that can maintain a copy of your files on your backup device. You just tell it where you keep everything - My Documents, say - and it will automatically backup new and amended files. There is a lot of such software about. Some of it is free - e.g. Microsoft's SyncToy. You just need to configure it once and you're sorted.

With all these approaches, be careful about making changes to the backup copy of a file rather than the original. If you're not careful, you could end up losing changes when the original is automatically copied over the (changed) backup. You can set up more complex synchronisation schemes so that you can make changes on either side, but it can get fiddly. Best to only make changes to the originals.

Another thing to be aware of is that, if you change an original file without realising it, then the unwanted change will just automatically be copied to your backup and you could lose work. You can get round this by configuring the software you use to keep multiple copies of the backed-up files. So, as well as the current original, it would maintain a number of previous versions. This can be handy, too, if you decide you want to pull something out of a previous revision that you had discarded. You decide you want a certain phrase or rhyme back, for example, in which case you can just open the relevant backup, copy out the bit you want, and paste it back into the current version. This can be a lifesaver!

Remote Backup

I'd advise also setting up a remote or off-site backup. Having everything local is handy, but if disaster strikes, if your machine is stolen, say, or damged by water or fire, then the chances are you'll lose your local backup too. Set up an automated remote backup and you're completely covered. Getting files back from a remote location is harder, but at least you can be sure the files still exist in the event of disaster.

These days, there are many web sites offering online backups. In the past I've used Mozy and Carbonite, but there are plenty of others. Lots of people use services like Dropbox, which allow files to be synched between different devices with ease. Typically these systems backup your documents in the background when you're online. So you really need broadband. Some offer a free level of service for a capped amount of backup - for example, you can get 2GB of free offsite backup. You just need to sign up, download the software, configure as instructed and that's it. So long as you place new documents in the configured folder, anything you write will be securely backed up - locally and remotely.

If you don't currently back up what you write - i.e. if you're just hoping that you won't have a hardware failure or some other problem - then you need to sort out a backup now, before disaster strikes. Really. Even if you just have a manual system - maybe emailing your work to a gmail/hotmail account from time to time - that's better than nothing. And it's certainly a lot easier than retyping everything you've ever written ...


  1. It's not just about computer hard drives dying or leaving your work on a train. While I was writing my novel my apartment was robbed, meaning the departure of my shinny new laptop. As luck would have it, I hadn't worked on my story in about a week and I had backed up at the last sitting. SO, nothing was lost, but your words are so right - ALWAYS back up! I can't imagine how horrible it would feel to lose work because you could never really recall it the same way.
    Zipping my writing folder and popping it on a USB stick is what works for me.

  2. Great post. I've tweeted a link.

    At the moment I back up to an external hard drive and a two memory sticks. I have considered using email or Dropbox to back up remotely but my concern is account hacking (see my post tomorrow).

    One way around saving the wrong version of a file is do what Jasper Fforde does. Each day he copies and saves his current work-in-progress in a new file, with that days date as the title. It does mean a lot of files but at least he never loses a days writing session.

  3. Muy importante! I've got my work on a desktop hard drive, my laptop, and 2 or 3 flash drives -- Dropbox will be next, just so I can access everything via my iPad.

  4. Once I had a hard-drive crash so complete that even the manufacturer couldn't save a single thing. They had to pull out the hard drive and throw it in the trash. Since then, I have a blood-pressure-lowering habit of backing up online anything I work on, nearly every time I work on it for more than a couple of hours.

  5. thanks. I finally did something about this. Time to quit expecting G/d to protect small children and idiots.

  6. I hope the post has helped as a prompt in some small way. Losing work is a horrible experience.