Tuesday, 13 September 2011

When Did You Last Back Up Your Writing?

I know how precious my work is to me and I know other writers feel the same. What I don’t understand is how they can go day after day challenging the odds of losing it all.

So here’s the scenario: your masterpiece has taken months, years even. You’ve collated volumes of research, made your fingers ache from typing, poured your soul into those passages; but just as the end is in sight, or the deadline looming, you sit down one morning, switch on your trusty computer, and it makes an odd noise. The screen remains blank – or worse, it displays some terrifying error message. Concerned, you try turning it off and on again. This time it makes the sort of mechanical grinding noise that you’d expect if you stuck a pencil into a hairdryer and the true realisation hits; whatever unfortunate mechanical failure your (no longer so trusty) computer has just suffered, it is of almost insignificant concern compared to what you’ve potentially lost on its hard drive – months of work excised from existence at the whim of whatever hairy ape passes for a god of all things digital. 
Exactly this scenario happened to a friend recently; she lost all the work for her master’s project and goodness knows what else. Hopefully a data recovery service may be able to retrieve the data, but it all costs money and takes time. While I commiserate with her (I really do feel for you Kelly), it’s time and money that shouldn’t have been lost. But any writer could just as easily lose the whole lot by leaving a laptop on a train or having it stolen from a car.

Ask yourself: just how precious is my work, how much of it can I afford to lose? A few sentences, a page, ten thousand words? Now be honest here: when did I last back everything up?  If you do back up regularly, well done – have a high five and a warm, slightly smug moment. If not, it’s a habit that I guarantee will save your digital bacon at some stage.
It comes down to this. If you are writing, or aspire to write professionally, you need to think of your equipment, and the files you create with it, in a professional way. It’s okay, you can still arrange fluffy toys along the top of your monitor, or cover your laptop in Zombie Boy™ stickers; but you need to get into the habit of backing up your work and making archives periodically. 

The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; most people have them about making backups, but remembering, or figuring out what they should back up and how, can often mean that when disaster strikes they haven’t actually got round to it. However, some simple options are available that can be set up to provide automatic backups, as well as some very handy online solutions which should ensure that when the inevitable crunch happens, you’ll be breathing a sigh of relief, rather than a whimper of despair.
If you are intending to preserve your whole computer system, including all those family snapshots, video tutorials (or in my case huge chunks of uncompressed digital film), you will need to buy an external hard drive that has the same memory capacity as the one inside your computer. Yes, it will cost actual money, but think about what you are protecting here, and these days big USB external drives are fairly cheap – less than 50 quid, or 75 bucks down at the local supermarket.
If you own a Mac, this external drive can be set to be the Time Machine drive via the Time Machine settings in the System Preferences. This will not only make an hourly backup of any changes on your computer, but can also be used to hunt back in time and restore previous versions of files you may have saved days, or even weeks, before – so no more worries about accidentally overwriting a file.
On a PC running Windows, a similar automatic system can be set up by opening the Control Panel, and then clicking the Backup and Restore option. This allows you to schedule the external drive to back up daily, or whenever you click Backup Now. It may also be set to schedule a backup for a single folder or file, which can come in handy if you are working from a laptop away from your desk, as a small USB pen drive can be used instead of an external hard drive.
Other interesting methods of ensuring your precious work (and arse) is protected from disaster utilise some of the new cloud computing solutions that are available. Many ISPs already offer a storage service as part of their broadband package, but there are numerous free online backup services available such as those from Mozy.co.uk or IDrive.com
However, the best solutions for writers are those that offer synchronisation, like Sugarsync or Dropbox. Both of these services work with most operating systems and devices including tablets and phones. Each works in a similar way, allowing you to set folders on your computer to be automatically backed up online. If you make any updates to the files in those folders, it will be backed up as soon as you do so. Even better, you can set other machines like your laptop, or ipad to synchronise with the same folders, so your work is not only updated on all your devices, it is backed up at the same time. The free offering from Dropbox gives 2GB of space and Sugarsync 5GB, but if you use their pay service you could easily backup your entire drive. It is even possible to share selected folders with family or clients.
Provided you can access the internet, this ability to rove and get at your files from anywhere makes it very easy to ensure your current project is always backed up – hopefully before you manage to douse your keyboard in skinny frappelatto.

I’ve mentioned just a few ways to protect your work, although there are numerous other easy to use solutions out there, so there isn’t any excuse not to be covered (I’m always interested to hear about more, so please let me know). Whether you are a novelist, journalist, non-fiction writer, poet, scriptwriter, editor or just enjoy getting your thoughts down on digital paper, if it means something to you, for goodness sake, make sure you look after it! Back it up and make an archive of your work. Do it today, and thank me tomorrow.

Backup Trivia: the accepted forms are backup as a single compound word for the noun, and two separate words back up when used as a verb.

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Illustration©Simon Cornish 2010

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