This post is from Dr Ali Daws and originally appeared on his most excellent blog, Writing on Writing. Ali is quite extraordinary, not the least for the fact that he is the only person I know to go and do a Masters degree AFTER he got his PhD ( just for interest – like you do).

This post is reposted from his blog by his permission because I thought the topic of backing up was both important and interesting (well, Ali makes it interesting). Enjoy. 

I will always remember one scene in Wonder Boys, even though the rest of the plot has become hazy for me over the years. In this scene, a tortured writer (played by Michael Douglas) watches as the hand-typed pages of his manuscript blow away. All twelve thousand of them. The thought is enough to send chills down my spine.

Just a plot device, I hear you say. It wouldn’t happen in the age of computers. Oh really?

What’s your backup plan?

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “but Word saves automatically, doesn’t it?” Others, “what’s a backup plan?” But there are some of you who know exactly what I’m talking about. The ones who’ve lost data.

I was busy in the lab one day writing my Honours thesis when the fire alarm went off. I assumed it was a drill. I kept on writing. That is, until the fire warden found me. He said the lab next door was on fire and told me to get the hell outside with everybody else. I stared at him, then at the ageing Apple Macintosh computer with all of my precious words painstakingly hammered into place with two fingers. (This was before I could touch-type.) Then I looked at the jars of extremely flammable fixative and solvents and God-only-knows-what-else lining the shelves. (This was also before occupational health and safety was given much credence.)

I can tell you one thing—Word’s auto-save feature didn’t give me much comfort on that day. I fought off the fire warden long enough to unplug the computer from the wall and disentangle it from various peripherals. Then I carried the damned thing downstairs in my arms.

That was when I started backing up my work religiously.

I developed an intricate system when I was working on my PhD thesis. It involved saving each chapter on its own floppy disk at the end of the day. I actually made two copies, and took one set of floppies home in a box so that when the lab inevitably exploded I wouldn’t lose everything. Some of you are no doubt smiling at the memory of little boxes of floppies we all used to carry around. For the rest of you, floppy disks are what we had before we burned things to CD or DVD or USB drives. You know that icon you hit to save your work? The square one?

That’s a floppy disk.

You’re welcome.

Today my backup schedule is a little different. For one thing, disk space is ridiculously cheap. Backing up no longer means saving each chapter to a different disk. But the biggest difference comes from the ingenious backup features built into Scrivener. Every time I close a project, Scrivener zips the whole thing up and saves it in a designated place. The Preferences pane gives a range of options for this kind of regular backup, including how many backups to keep (in my case, the ten most recent) and where to save the backups.

Scrivener also supports a version of off-site backups, which means that if my laptop suffers a calamity—possibly involving coffee, given my writing habits—I have a zipped copy of my work to restore onto whatever replaces my trusty MacBook Air. Once a day I go to the File menu and choose Back Up > Back Up To. This menu option lets me choose an external drive as the target for my backup instead of the folder on my laptop used by the automatic backups. I have a shared network drive at home. (editor’s note: if you want to read more about the word processing program scrivener, visit this earlier post)

You can also use something like Dropbox that hosts your files in the cloud somewhere. (Just be careful to read the terms and conditions of online file storage services—some include the right to copy and even sell your documents.) The advantage of these services is that you can access your files from anywhere in the world.

My backup strategy has changed over the years. When I adopted Scrivener for all of my writing it took a giant leap forward. If this post has made you think twice about the way you backup your own work, then it was worth the time it has taken me to write. Save yourself the trauma of losing everything. Backup your work.

Have you ever lost a bunch of data or writing in a digital catastrophe – or had a near miss? How do you manage version control between all your files? We’d love to hear some of your data management strategies!

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