Years ago, I was writing on deadline (when am I not?). My work-in-progress was about sixty percent complete when my computer screen went blank.
At first, I blamed it on my son. Even when he was in grade school, he was better with computers than I was. He knew it. I knew it. And one day when I fired up my computer for a full day of writing, the startup screen appeared and then disappeared. Shut itself down. I repeated the startup, and the same thing happened. Tried again, with the same result. I think I found other work to do that day until my son got home from school and asked, a mischievous smile on his face, “How’d work go?” He never asked me that, so I knew I’d been had. After I issued every threat I could think of, he admitted to his little trick and put my computer back to the way it was. Grrrr.
But this time, it wasn’t my son’s nefarious schemes. My hard drive failed. I prayed, begged, and tried bribing my computer guru; but my book was gone.
But I’m not totally clueless. I had a backup. Two, in fact. (This was back in the days of diskettes and zip drives.) But I had skipped my backup routine for two or three days before the hard drive failure, so while I hadn’t lost the whole book, I had lost several days of writing. Good writing. Probably the best I’ve ever done.
Something similar recently happened to a friend of mine. She used one of those online backup services, so she should’ve been covered. But there were problems. The backup service had saved a few versions of her corrupted file … but not far enough back to get her to an uncorrupted version. She worked with them and eventually got most of her work restored, but it took several days.
Everyone needs a backup system and strategy—especially writers. What’s yours? How often do you back up your work (not just save, but backup, because, well, what if you saved a corrupted file or overwrote a particularly inspired paragraph?)? Do you back up to flash drives? Do you use an online backup service? Apple’s Time Machine, which saves new or altered documents at regular intervals? Something else?
Please share your backup strategy in the comments. I’d love to steal learn from what you do.
I use scrivener, and they automatically save a backup of the last 5 versions of your work.
I set the default folder of the backup to my drop box, and every time I close scrivener I wait a few minutes until the little drop box icon is done, so I know the backup has been synchronized with the cloud.
In drop box you also have the option of going back in time a number of days, so if 5 past versions isn’t enough, there’s a good chance of finding an earlier version too. Fortunately I’ve never needed to try.
At my work many computers are backed up with backblaze which is a service that automatically mirrors your entire computer on the cloud in a secure way. If you have a total meltdown they can even send you a full hard drive by post with all your files. It’s working pretty well, and is probably a good solution for authors with vast storage needs.
I use Carbonite, which backs up new files almost in real time, and every day, I rename the day’s work into a new file. Also, every few weeks, I gmail my latest version of my current work in progress to myself. That provides two offsite backups for what’s most important.
My own Rube Goldbergesque disaster involved a leaking roof, a poor patching solution, and an attached-to-the-ceiling tarp to catch any water that made it through. This was more than a decade ago in another house. The drop that broke the tarp’s back landed, the tarp yielded, and the water poured down directly onto the only vulnerable thing in that room: my laptop, which was off to the side on a desk. The Niagara-like cascade had a certain clear beauty, but my sense of having been Specially Chosen outweighed it. I hadn’t even been writing anything naughty!
I became more serious about backing up. Offsite!
I’m still in the dark ages and ashamed to admit it. My back up is on several thumb drives, but I haven’t been consistent. Most of my research and photos are in paper files and on those drives. The other back up is two paper copies of the novel, a working editing copy and one I sometimes forget to add to. In different places in the house. I am sure this is not fail safe.
Who can’t relate to losing computer function or overachieving teenagers! Such a great article, Steve! I have several strategies, but the easiest is simple: Whenever I write, I send myself an email with the latest version.
I do this, too! Then, I save it in the cloud and on my computer (which I back up to the cloud automatically and often to my external hard drive). I also periodically print things out (but the paper…).
The problem I have now is saving revisions. I save them basically three places in two forks, but all it takes is one revision in one form to be unsaved and poof, I can submit an old draft. Sure, I have time stamps, but I think I need to start naming each saved revision.
So…are writers supposed to be organized? *sigh*
Two forms, not two forks. Two forks would be weird.
Now this could be because I wear both a belt and suspenders, but I’ve long employed a backup strategy known as Grandfather-Father-Son, where I keep three sets of backups. If you will, I have backups of backups of backups. I use USB drives (no longer cost prohibitive) and I keep Grandfather off-site, Father in my fire-resistant safe, and Son in my desk drawer. I back up my work drive/computer monthly to Grandfather (I have three of them that I rotate), weekly to Father (3 also), and daily to Son (I just keep a week at a time, which gets transferred to Father on Sundays. Too much? Maybe, but I’ve lost enough work in the past forty years to warrant that strategy. For what it’s worth, it’s the same strategy many businesses employ.
I signed up for Carbonite earlier this year. It’s very affordable per year if you sign up for multiple years. Now that I’ve done it – of course – I won’t need it, right?
I email myself a copy of my WIP and also keep it on a thumb drive. Yeah, yeah, call me old fashioned but it works for me. ?
Sami A. Abrams
I back up with a USB drive, but not all the time. My go-to when I’m in a hurry (which is most days) is to email my manuscript to myself. I do this almost daily. I have it anywhere and at any time I need it.
A computer geek friend advised me to get the Carbonite online service. Best computer related decision I ever made. I’ve set it to automatically backup after midnight when I know I’m not on the ‘puter.
Carbonite even allows you to download all your files to a new system when you have to upgrade.
Couldn’t be easier and it’s very affordable.
To always have a backup system
is sound and good advice,
but it seems my Godly mission
is to live as hog-on-ice.
I hopscotch life’s flowing stream,
rocks bearing peels of bananas,
attended, or so it would seem
by hungry mad piranhas.
Sometimes I fall, and razor-teeth
flash and slice and lacerate,
and yet I am not dragged beneath;
what’s lost I can anew create.
The last leap will be onto God’s green grass,
with one last piranha hangin’ to my…gluteus.
This just happened to me Monday! I can’t even put in words the angst that I’d lost a year’s work of writing! I used a thumb drive but found out they easily get corrupted with too many saves…now I am in cloud, but I agree…at the end of the day, I just email it too myself…so easy…It’s so nice to know others can relate…I had that conversation with God, you know the one, if it’s lost I’ll go ahead and take it as a sign that I should be doing something else? Well, thank God for Tech geek friends…without them I’d be lost, and no longer writing.
Damon J. Gray
Lisa, are you working on your WIP directly ON the thumb drive? Don’t do that, especially if you’re using MS Word. Use the thumb drive ONLY for storage.
From a high level:
Thumb drives have no moving parts. When you save/alter data on a thumb drive. quite literally a micro-fiber piece of metal gets moved one way or the other, to represent the binary zero or one in your data string. You know that when you bend a piece of metal enough times, it breaks off. That’s kinda what happens inside a thumb drive, or a solid-state hard drive. You can do only so many “saves” to those drives before they just wear out.
Your safest option for portable storage is a USB hard drive that has a spinning disc inside. You can pick up a 1 or 2 terrabyte drive for about $50 at Best Buy, and you’ll never fill it.
Sharon K Connell
My system for backups is to copy and paste whatever file I worked on for the day to a thumbdrive. I have 2 thumbdrives labeled with my present WIP, and I keep them next to me in a holder at my desk. I alter backups on them, one for even days, one for odd days.
Once a week I also backup everything I’ve worked on (or at least something I don’t want to take a chance on having to redo from scratch) for that week by emailing those files to myself and keeping them in a file on G-mail.
It’s a fast and easy system.
I always send the latest version of my wip to my twin sister, who saves it on her computer. She’s a writer, too, so she’s my backup, my sounding board, and my (brutally honest) critique. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can write without a twin lol!
I’m OCD about saving my work! I save it to the hard drive, to a thumb drive, to an external hard drive, and to Carbonite. Carbonite does a double save, one of which is a mirror image. The Carbonite backup is automatic, so even if I forget, it backs up without my prompting. However, my OCD has me glancing at the Carbonite icon several times a day “just to make sure.” Carbonite is worth every penny!
I know this seems a bit over-the-top, but I’ve heard too many horror stories from writers who lost their entire manuscript. . . kinda like your story, Bob.
Damon J. Gray
Nope! Not over the top at all.
I save to hard drive and thumb drive. My son tells me that my computer is automatically saving my work to the cloud. I hope so. I had never thought of emailing myself. I think I’ll start doing that.
Randy, if you do it often enough to not lose any progress (i.e., every day), emailing yourself the day’s work is the most cost-effective (no cost, perfectly effective) approach you can take. I do it primarily for peace of mind. Setting an every-day alarm on your phone after your usual scheduled work window could help establish the habit.
Brennan S. McPherson
From yahoo to gmail, etc.
Colleen K Snyder
I’ve learned! So I save to an on-line cloud, a zip drive, and my documents. Always, without fail, every time I close my computer for the night. I will lose at most an hour’s work. No more trying to recreate a masterpiece from stone knives and bearskins. (Does ANYONE remember that quote?)
Damon J. Gray
Yup! “I am attempting to create a mnemonic device using stone knives and bear skins.”
Damon J. Gray
I am a computer geek (my day job) so, yes, I do keep several layers of redundancy for that time WHEN everything goes sideways. I have written some automated routines that do multiple backups to distinct network drives.
1. I never save my work in progress ON the actual computer. Keep all important work on a self-standing portable drive. Computers die, and when that happens, it’s possible, but difficult to retrieve your work.
2. Always, always, always back up your portable drive. Drives fail. They just do!! Bank on it.
3. Never, ever, ever work on your Microsoft Word document on a Flash Drive/Thumb Drive (USB drives that don’t have a spinning platter disc). MS Word and thumb drives do not play well together. So, if you’re using a thumb drive, copy your file locally, do your work, and then copy it back to your thumb drive.
4. As Bob has emphasized, back up everything daily, maybe hourly. And then make a backup of your backup. And then maybe even a backup of the backup of your backup. And if you get to a point that you have a pretty good document, burn that baby to a CD. That data never changes.
Brennan S. McPherson
Just keep in mind a house-fire is a possibility. If all your backups are in one place, that’s no bueno. It’s just way simpler and easier to have an email address set up on two distinct service providers and shoot an email from one to the other everyday, while saving on a physical computer that has an automatic cloud backup.
Burn to a CD is a good idea, but not permanent.
Some claim a lifespan of only 10 years before it begins to degrade:
Some claim 25 years.
I have some old floppy disks but cannot trust that they will still be viable. Fortunately I don’t need them anymore, but what if I did?
This is important if you want to store something in a safe deposit box, for example. It may be fine for now, but when archaeologists dig it up two centuries from now they may not be able to read your book.
Science-fiction scenarios flit across the mind when thinking of it that way.
Carbonite. Pay for it, set it up, forget it.
Bob, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit moved you to post this today. Reading the comment thread has been inspiring and probably life (depending on how you define life) saving for me. I have been sloppy, inconsistent, and dangerously cavalier about backing up stuff, and I am sure my luck was just about to run out. Now, having read all these great ideas, its just possible I will act in time to avoid a tragedy. So thanks to all.
My primary writing goes on a thumb drive. When I finish for the day, I always back it up to the laptop. I often back up the laptop to an archive hard drive. This way, my latest work is always remote from the laptop. So far, it has always worked perfectly.
I have an editing copy and a master copy of my work. I work only on my editing copy. At night before I shut down, I “save” my editing work, then go back in and “save as” to the master copy. That way if my file is lost, I have a second complete file on my computer. Then every couple of days, I email my editing file to myself and on occasion to my husband, so I have back up if my computer goes down.
A very easy system and I can quickly recover lost work.
Martha Whiteman Rogers
I sure needed this reminder today because I have the feeling my PC is about to crash. My just completed ms is now on an external hard drive, a flash drive, and emailed to my husband’s address and his laptop. I forget to do this so often that I’m looking into Carbonite after reading all the posts about it.
I did have one to crash six years ago, but my IT son was able to retrieve most of the information for me. He also let me know that I may not be so lucky next time.
I use scrivener, also save my work on dropbox.
I tried Carbonite, but their system crashed my computer and they lost all of my files. So now, I use a portable backup drive (I’ve had those crash too) and thumb drive…those two have gone bad. I’m thinking of using the free Dropbox. I’ve read some people email their work to themselves.
Damon J. Gray, how does one back up the portable drive?
I’ve used Word since 1988 when I was a technical writer and it was Word 2. I back up to an external hard drive, to a thumb drive, and to Dropbox.
My husband owns and operates a computing services business. One time someone came to him after their computer had been through a house fire. The computer was toast, but he was able to get the data off the hard drive even though it was unusable by normal means. it’s a rare occurrence when he can’t retrieve data from dead hard drives
My husband runs a small IT company. His motto? Back up, back up, back up. That is, save all your documents in (at least) 3 places. Every computer hard drive will eventually fail. Thumb drives and external hard drives too–and sometimes right out of the box. Cloud services aren’t foolproof. He backs up his business files in 4 places–and due to a server crash, he had to use the 4th and final one to retrieve his business files once. One more thing to consider is an off-site backup (or 2) for your documents. Seriously, if your house is lost in a catastrophe, your thumb drives and external drive will be lost right along with your computer. Some business owners I know keep 2 external drives, backing up weekly or even daily–and taking home one of those drives every day so it’s not left at the business location.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
After losing ‘way too much when my PC crashed and died a few years ago, I probably do overkill now, but that was a traumatizing experience! I keep an external hard drive plugged into a USB port at all times and every Save goes there and to the PC’s hard drive. I also back up onto the Cloud via OneDrive and subscribe to Carbonite. I’ve had to use Carbonite retrieval once. Once was enough to justify the cost.
I trusted Facebook as a storage place for the content on my FB local history Group blog, Seeking Siloam Springs. BAD mistake. I posted the bio of a well-known 19th century local man, Charles Salem “Sale” Johnson, who joined the Republican Party in 1898. FB’s algorithms picked up on two specific words and read that as a political ad that was selling something and disallowed it. I filed a formal appeal assuring FB that we just share old photos and discuss history, and Sale was just the nickname of a man who lived a century ago; but it was rejected, and they bumped my blog into a different format. Instead of a Group that chats, it’s now a business site, my web address SeekingSiloamSprings.com no longer works, and as administrator, I can only post ads, sales, and events. I don’t have any of those, so my site has essentially gone dead. It was my steadily growing platform for a book in progress and had loyal Followers–more than 500 people had interacted on it and more than 100 formally joined the Group, and more with every post. If I just replace it with a new site, I’ll lose a year of posts my Followers and I have made. Ideas?
And a gentle warning to those who only have physical backups like thumb drives: Years ago, a friend lost a virtually complete dissertation manuscript when the computer, paper copy, and file cabinet in which she had stored the disk backups were all in the same college building and it burned down. You need off-site backup, too, even if it’s just in emails to yourself.
I use Dropbox.com for cloud-backup and multi-device access. But also set the program to keep a copy of everything on my physical computer.
That creates two back ups.
On top of all that I ‘ve subscribed to Carbonite.com for years as the consistent off-site back up. Every couple months I double check the Carbonite backup to make sure it is still working and capturing the recent files.
When traveling everything then is available on Dropbox. But if I’m working on a specific file I also save a copy to a USB drive to insure work is not lost.
Using your email system is a good idea…as long as it suddenly becomes unavailable. We tend to treat our email as if it is forever. But what if their backup fails? Or what if your server decides they don’t like you anymore and blocks access for some/any reason. Your Terms of Service leaves you out in the cold if that ever happens.
Best to be a tiny bit paranoid and have multiple backup options.
Linda M. Au
I think Dropbox does the on-computer saves automatically. That’s part of its beauty: you can work on a Dropbox file from your local Dropbox folder, even if you’re not online because you’re working on the actual local copy. Then when you’re again connected to the internet, it’ll auto-sync to your main Dropbox and then will update the file on each separate device on which you’re using that Dropbox file/folder.
Kinda like the old “Briefcase” aspect of Windows a few incarnations ago. Only better.
Brennan S. McPherson
Steve, that’s why I email it from one email address at one service provider (gmail) to another email on another service provider (outlook). The likelihood both will crash simultaneously is extremely low. And if you have a physical back-up on top of it, you’re as safe as is reasonable, without spending any money. A house-fire simultaneous with the collapse of two of the largest email service providers is extremely unlikely. Probably more likely would be an EMP attack, in which case you wouldn’t be publishing books for a while.
I have had this happen. The screen goes blank (fossil computer from the John Day Fossil Beds), a thumb drive failed… I was like… HOW??
So, I email it to myself nightly. I make a note in the subject where I was. I have access to Natural Reader for the latest copy, have a new thumb drive.
I lost every book on the thumb drive. However, I’d sent all to my gmail so all was well with my world.
After Hemingway’s wife lost his work, including the copies, he decided to change his writing style so he could write faster. Losing the work I have done this past year would bum me out. Honestly, I feel I’d give up on it. I’m confident that will never happen since I do keep backups. In fact, I just updated them after reading this post.
Linda M. Au
I use Carbonite for immediate backups. And all my writing goes to Dropbox immediately, too. I have all my Scrivener projects set to update via Dropbox since I use three different computers as I work. I finally bit the bullet and now pay for more Dropbox space than I’ll ever need. But it allows me to keep and have easy access to so many types of files and so much data. (Carbonite was very helpful when I switched to a new computer a few months ago and simply had to “restore” my data to the new computer.)
I don’t back up computer programs themselves. Just the data (plus photos and videos and game saves).
In my 32 years of owning and using computers (1987), I’ve never lost data. I may seem goofy and impetuous, but I’m dead serious about my work files and always have been.
My wife needs a backup strategy. So far, I’ve replaced two taillights, a trunk emblem, and a rear bumper. I’m not even going to count the number of neighborhood squirrels with only half a tail . . .
Len, I once tried an experiment…driving forward at 80 mph on a straight stretch of interstate highway with reference only to my rear-view mirrors.
To say that it didn’t work would be putting it kindly, and do you know how much it costs to replace a highway sign?
I send an email to myself every night with all the files I’ve worked in that day. I also have an external hard drive. I like the email for off site copies and the external hard drive for ease of restoration if my computer dies.
Linda M. Au
I’d been told a long time ago to also make sure there is an off-site backup that is not located where your computer is. If there is a fire, for instance, both your computer and your external hard drive could be damaged.
I asked Denise to stand behind the car and tell me if my signal light was working. I turned it on and I heard my wife saying, “Yes . . . No . . . Yes . . . No.”
Ha, ha, ha!
Barb’s an accountant, and for her birthday I rigged my old hard hat with a flasher and beeper from Radio Shack.
“Why?” she asked.
“So you can back up your work.”
I am lucky to be alive to write this.
Ha! You and I would get along. I sense a deep paranoia running through these comments . . .
Len, just because you’re paranoid, it don’t mean there’s not someone out to get you.
Go it, bro’!
Fun thread, Bob. I’ll bite. In addition to trusting and Lord and maintaining a Carbonite subscription, I have gotten into the habit of…
– e-mailing a copy of my novel manuscript to my Gmail address at lunchtime each working day, then again when I knock off.
– saving that copy on my phone archive as soon as it arrives from Gmail
– saving a copy daily to a thumb drive which I keep in my pocket at all times (at night, I keep it in whatever pair of pants by my bedside that I would put on if I had to flee the house all of a sudden)
– copying the latest to my laptop when I work “there” 2 or 3 times a week
– saving a copy to a thumb drive in a fireproof safe in my house 1x per week
– saving a copy to a thumb drive in my car about once a month
– printing a full copy every few months. (Some beta readers are packrats.)
On each of those media, I keep a continually growing pile of separate, dated versions (daily revisions) of my manuscript no matter how trivial any additions or changes may be on a particular day. That makes it easier to do version control, and besides, storage is cheap.
I’ve never been diagnosed with OCD… but now I might be. 🙂
Wow. I thought I had the bases covered, but I think I need to start keeping a thumbdrive copy next to my bed at night. 😉 Your list is seriously impressive.
Back up early, backup often. I sue a flash drive, and sometimes I make a copy on a second flash drive. I also often send a copy to myself via email. It is not physical media but I’m not depending upon a backup service. It’s also worthwhile to get an external drive and copy your C drive (on Wondows) completely from time to time. I do. That way, if your hard drive fails, you can get a new, blank one and restore from your external drive.
I use Dropbox and a thumb drive.
I use Microsoft OneDrive to save Scrivener, plus all of my other files save for space-hogs like pictures. Those, I use Shutterfly. Yeah, so it’s Microsoft, but they’re generous with their space, and I trust their security more than Dropbox. Any of the methods mentioned in the comments are great.
I use Dropbox, thumb drive and email, but I’m interested in Carbonite. I work from home, though, from a Remote Desktop and wouldn’t want to save all my paid work to Carbonite. It’s huge design files, and they’re saved to several servers at the main office. Would they also save to Carbonite, or not since they’re on a Remote Desktop?
Since I work on Scrivener, I tell it to compile everything into a Word document at the end of the day and then email that file to myself. I send it from my professional email to my personal email. That way I have a backup copy on my computer and in two separate email inboxes. I also have a cloud thing set up to back up my entire computer. And when I hit certain milestones in my project (like a specific word count or completing a draft or revision) I will even go onto our travel computer and deliberately download the last copy I emailed myself. So then I have it on a second laptop. And, last but not least, whenever I finish a draft (first, second, or whatever), I will backup not only my manuscript but all of my notes and research files onto a separate hard drive I use solely for this purpose. Side note: Ask me about the time my kids (who were not supposed to be anywhere near the table) spilled water all over the table while I was in the bathroom and my laptop was sitting in a puddle so long that the entire thing was fried by the time I came back. Yeah. Fun times.
I mail it to myself.
I save daily on a thumb drive (though I admit sometimes I forget). I also save monthly onto another thumb drive and every three months everything on my computer gets saved to an external hard drive which I keep in a safety deposit box.
I too have lost work and wasted time trying to restore it. Not fun!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
PS Per my earlier post about my blog/web site, does anyone have experience or suggestions on how to store the content of social media posts? My site that FB has ended as a FB Group for sharing local history has many contacts, photos, and pieces of information I want to eventually use in a book–I said that up front, so anyone who participates knows that and gives me permission just by posting. Copy and Paste to a Word document and save in the ways that have been discussed for our writing, or something better that hasn’t come to my mind? Thanks!
For ex., I downloaded an extensive series of text messages and wrote a book from them. The text conversations are all saved in a file on my computer.
Thanks for this post:
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, I am very low-tech here. I email a copy of the book to myself on a daily basis and print out new chapters from time to time. Low tech, but it’s worked so far. I did the same thing with my dissertation- all 400 pages.
If you want a free alternative to Carbonite, I recommend Google Drive. You get 15 gb free, which is plenty when simply uploading book files. Like Carbonite, it automatically backs up the folders you tell it to do. And any changes to those folders triggers a new backup.
Also, like many of you, I regularly backup to a thumb drive (two actually).