Reference Desk #6 – Back Up Your Work!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the power going out while you’re in the middle of writing. It’s second only to the feeling you get when you boot up your computer and get an error message telling you your hard drive has failed.

As writers, it’s easy to get caught up in characters, settings and plots. That’s the fun stuff. Making sure your work is backed up isn’t fun, but it sure beats the alternative: losing anywhere from hours to years of work.

Take a little time to figure out a back-up plan for your writing. Think of it like an insurance policy. Nobody hopes they’ll need to use their insurance, but it’s a safety net.

What Makes a Good Backup Plan?

  • A backup plan should be easy. Ideally, once it’s set up there will be no extra work at all. The more effort you have to put into it, the more annoying it will be. You don’t want to be tempted to skip it. Murphy’s law tells us conclusively that the one time you skip your plan will be the one time you’ll need it.
  • A backup plan should protect against as many types of failure as possible. Copying your work to a USB thumb drive will protect against a hard drive failure, but won’t save your stories from a house-fire. You want a backup that protects your work from everything short of Armageddon, and maybe even beyond that if you plan on being your post-apocalyptic tribe’s resident shaman/storyteller.
  • A backup plan should provably work. The word “provably” is critical here. As a software developer, I’ve seen important systems with supposedly good backup plans go down, only to find that the backups are outdated, broken, or completely missing. This invariably comes down to the same class of problem: the backups were put in place, but were never tested, or tested so rarely that nobody noticed when they stopped working.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at some of the available backup options.

Hard Drives and Hard Copies

In the good ‘ol days, the way to back up your work was to make a copy and put it somewhere safe. Expensive and inconvenient.

While computers steadily get faster and better in almost every way every year, text files remain incredibly small and easy to store. Even proprietary formats like Scrivener or Word – which include both text and formatting – make tiny files compared to audio, video or images. The most prolific writer will have a difficult time filling a cheap external hard drive, USB flash drive, or memory card.

Consider this the bare minimum for backups. If you’re like me, you probably already have a couple old memory cards or USB sticks in a drawer somewhere. It’s not particularly convenient to copy your files from computer to external storage on a regular basis. If you do this, you’ll tend to leave them plugged into your writing computer, or nearby, and that can make it more likely that an accident damaging the computer will damage the backup as well.

This is beginner mode. You can do better.

Cloud Backups

No matter what operating system you use, there is probably an easy cloud backup option available to you. “Cloud” is the buzziest of buzzwords, but in this case, it just means that your files are backed up to servers somewhere out on the internet.

If you use a Chromebook, Google Docs has you covered. In fact, if you want, Google Docs can have you covered on any operating system with a web browser. If you’ve only ever used a word processor like Word, think of it like this: Google Docs is a word processor that lives on the internet. It saves to Google Drive (their cloud file storage) by default. You can access the files from anywhere with an internet connection, and you can even edit in your browser.

If you’re on Mac, iCloud is the backup option that Apple is going to push you toward. On Windows, Microsoft wants you to use their proprietary cloud storage, OneDrive, which integrates with Word and the rest of Office.

Of course, you aren’t obligated to pay any attention to these huge multinational corporations and where they think you should store your backups. There are other options.

One of the oldest and most mature products out there is Dropbox. Dropbox is made for synchronization, so it’s designed to be installed on multiple computers and copy the contents of the Dropbox directory between them. A change on one computer gets automatically pushed to the others. Dropbox also keeps cloud backups and lets you access files from a browser. It even stores a history of changes, which can allow you to grab an old version of a file if you accidentally pushed changes you didn’t want to.

There are other tools. Lots of other tools. Box.com. Sync.com. I haven’t tried them all, and frankly, there are new ones all the time. The fact is, it doesn’t really matter. All of them can save your work to the cloud. Pretty much all of them have completely free plans, typically with at least 5GB of storage. That may seem small in the age of inexpensive TB-sized hard drives, but you can fit an awful lot of text in 5GB, especially if it’s zipped.

Besides, there’s no rule saying you couldn’t use more than one of these services, if you really need more free storage. You could also shell out a little money to protect those precious stories.

Version Control

Alright. Let’s get really nerdy. Cloud backups are easy and safe, but what if that’s not enough for you? You’re not afraid of a little complexity, and you want to be able to track every single change you’ve ever saved for your manuscript. You want the ability to separately track the changes to the first- and third-person versions of a story. You want to control exactly where your backups live, instead of letting some company like Microsoft or Google decide.

If the thumb drive is easy mode, then version control is hard mode. Version control software is designed to keep track of changes in files. As a software developer, I use it every single day. When tracking down difficult bugs, it’s often vital to be able to go back and see what changed and when.

There are several popular version control systems, such as CVS, Subversion (SVN) and Git. They come in two basic flavors: centralized and distributed.

Centralized version control has been around for ages. It has a central server or repository that keeps track of all your versions and branches. A client can then be used on different machines to download one or more versions from the repository, make changes, and upload new versions.

Distributed version control is a newer idea, though still more than a decade old. In DVCS, there doesn’t have to be a central repository. Each client keeps a complete copy of the repository, with all the versions and branches. This adds more complexity, but it can also remove that central point of possible failure. In practice, DVCS can still be used like a central repository with clients, and often is.

There are thousands of websites and blog posts comparing the various features of version control systems. I can barely scratch the surface here. If you’re interested in going down this road, be aware that even the simplest version control systems are more than adequate for most writers’ needs. If you’re not the most technical person, this is a challenging rabbit hole to go down. Look for services that make it easier to set up, like TortoiseGit and GitHub.

Don’t Write Another Word Without Backups

If you haven’t been backing up your work, I hope this post inspires you to change your ways. There are so many free and easy ways to protect your work. If your writing is important to you, don’t run the risk of losing it. Back it up.

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