It’s like exercising regularly and eating healthy food. We all know we should do it. But sometimes we don’t.
Backup, that is.
Our books-in-progress are valuable. Don’t let yours fall victim to a hacker or computer failure.
The value of a manuscript
Good computer backups are not just for big business. Writers and editors need them too.
An earlier version of this article appeared on this site in 2013, but I’ve just completely updated it because of a conversation I had on Twitter this past week. A writer was terrified that she might have lost her whole manuscript due to a file corruption. I had a small panic attack on her behalf, waiting to hear the news. Thankfully, her story ended well and her manuscript was safe.
Some of these stories didn’t end so well:
- Literary agent Rachelle Gardner blogged about a client whose “computer had crashed and died; his external backup was corrupted. His manuscript—the one he’d been writing for months—was due to the publisher in a couple of weeks. And it was GONE.” The poor writer waited anxious weeks, paid a great deal of money, and – thankfully – eventually regained a messy, incomplete version of his manuscript.
- Novelist Mat Johnson lost the first 100 pages of his novel when his computer hard disk died, and his online backup wasn’t functioning because he had failed to noticed the “update your credit card details” emails the service had sent.
- This article on The Write Life tells of a writer who lost every short story, script and book chapter they’d ever written.
The horror story that finally got me to act
I used to be a little haphazard in my backups. Sure, I had an external hard drive or USB sticks, but I felt uneasy.
Then, in August 2012, I read the story of technology journalist Mat Honan, who fell victim to a malicious hacker, and not only lost his important work on his laptop but saw his digital life stolen before his eyes.
The hacker wiped his devices clean, including all the photos of his baby daughter.
And even though he was a techy person, Mat’s laptop wasn’t backed up.
His story hit me between the eyes. Those baby photos!
“Had I been regularly backing up the data on my MacBook,” he wrote, “I wouldn’t have had to worry about losing more than a year’s worth of photos, covering the entire lifespan of my daughter, or documents and e-mails that I had stored in no other location.”
Some of Mat’s computer was gone forever, but thankfully, specialists were able to recover the photos of his baby girl’s birth and first year at a cost of nearly $1700.
If a techy person can neglect to backup for a year, there’s no shame in it for the rest of us, and I finally took action to create more reliable backups for my work.
Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t done it yet. Please just do something about it now.
The Rule of Three
Please note that several of the horror stories above involved people who had backups but those backups failed for one reason or another.
We must have redundancy in our backups.
Also, at least one of our backups, and hopefully two, is not in the same building as the computer, so that we are covered in case of theft, fire, flood, etc.
This is my backup set.
1. An external hard drive on my desk
I bought an external hard drive, connected it to my computer, and each hour it backs up every single file that has changed since the last time it looked. I like having this backup in-house, because it’s the quickest one to access when a file becomes corrupt or accidentally overwritten.
- I work on Mac and use a utility called Time Machine. All I have to do is navigate to the corrupted file in my Finder, then click Time Machine in the Dock, and it will immediately unroll backwards, showing me all the previous versions of that file that are still available from past hours, days or weeks. Here’s how to set up a Time Machine, if you’re on Mac.
- If you are on PC, here’s how to use the Backup utility in Windows 10.
2. A paid backup in the cloud
Because I have a lot of photos and videos as well as large publishing files, I use Crashplan for Small Business, which gives me unlimited backup at about $10 per month per device. I have about 700 GB on there right now!
If you don’t need such a large capacity, there are cheaper options. Here’s a 2018 review of the best online backup services, showing the different capabilities and pricing.
3. A free backup in the cloud
I also have a free Dropbox account, which is another kind of cloud backup that only holds 2 or 3 GB. (They offer larger backups for a fee.)
I have a folder on my computer called Dropbox, and this particular folder is constantly being backed up to this particular service. When I’m working on something important (my own books or my current client projects), I just shift it into the Dropbox folder, where it stays until the project is complete. Then I move it out again, to make room for new projects.
Dropbox is also useful when I shift from my desktop computer to my laptop – I synchronise the Dropbox on both machines, and the laptop then has the latest changes to my current files.
This means my most crucial current files are backing up to my external hard drive, my Crashplan account, and my Dropbox — simultaneously and automatically.
When I’m working away from home and have no internet connection, I save my important files to USB sticks – the same file to three or four different USB sticks, as they are prone to failure and corruption.
When I’m working away from home with a slow or limited internet connection that can’t support my usual constant cloud backups, I email my important files to myself. That way there is a copy not only on my computer when I get home, but in the email server, which is effectively a low-tech cloud backup.
If you don’t have an off-site backup yet, a very quick way to at least get started is to go somewhere such as gmail.com, set up a free email address, and email your manuscript to yourself at the gmail address at the end of each writing session. You can do this one right now, today, if you don’t yet have cloud backup.
If you write in Scrivener, I suggest exporting your manuscript to a Word doc before emailing it, as it is a smaller file.
If you lose your manuscript or your computer, you can login to your gmail account through an internet browser, and sort through the past emails to find the most recent copy.
An extra layer for Scrivener users
I write my books in Scrivener, and as mentioned, the main file remains in my Dropbox until the book is finished and published.
However, Scrivener itself has the option of a further layer of automated backup. Go to Scrivener > Preferences > Backup to choose your options.
Mine is set to backup the entire project to a folder called Scrivener Backup that I’ve created elsewhere on my computer. It saves a copy of the whole project there each time I close Scrivener… and it keeps the last 5 copies. I currently have 6 or 7 live projects running in Scrivener, and it saves the last 5 copies of every single one of them, totalling 35 documents!
My Scrivener projects contain lots of photos, audio interviews, web pages, pdfs, and other kinds of research – so they can be quite large and complex.
If this complex Scrivener file somehow becomes corrupted or overwritten – which has happened to me! – I can switch back to the complete, uncorrupted version I was working on yesterday or the day before, and lose only a small amount of work.
These extra backups are then, of course, backed up to my external hard drive, and my Crashplan backup.
What is your experience? Ever lost your work?
What backups are you currently running? Tell us what you’ve found to be good.
(Image via Bigstock/PixBox)