I’ve lost work. Hasn’t everybody? Mine was a hard drive failure that deleted dozens of short stories and partial manuscripts I’d collected over the years, back when cloud backup wasn’t anything as accessible or cheap as it is today. I had printed copies of some of those, backup diskettes of others, but a few are gone forever.
It’s understandable! We writers are not necessarily also computer people. We come from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, so the routine, rigorous backup and version control practices of software programmers may not be something we’re even aware of. But since I was lucky enough to marry into the ranks of nerdery (who was HORRIFIED at my chaotic-evil approach to file management), I have unlearned some bad habits that put my work at risk.
Don’t: Work From the Same Document Every Day
You don’t have to lose a whole file to lose work. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding out that you don’t like the changes you made yesterday, but since Undo only goes back to the last save, you’re stuck. Or finding out that you hit a wrong button at some point (who knows when?) and deleted large chunks of your document.
Do: New Day, New File
Every day that I write, step one is to create a new document. The document name begins with the date in year-month-day order, then a file name. For instance, on August 1, 2022, I opened my work in progress with the working title Uncoupled, and saved it as 2022-08-01 Uncoupled. This applies whether I’m working in Scrivener, Google Docs, or Word/Libreoffice. Then I work from this new file that day. Tomorrow I will start off my session by saving a new copy, 2022-08-02 Uncoupled.
This means that if a file gets corrupted, I’m unlikely to lose more than a day’s work. It also means that if I make a major change, such as from 1st person to 3rd, I can roll those changes back simply by opening an older version of the book. If I accidently delete a section without knowing, I can retrieve it from an earlier version. It also proves provenance if I have to show that I am the creator of a work in copyright dispute.
Is it “really” your final draft, though? One of the biggest traps we writers fall into is thinking a work is done, then having to tack on new words to try and distinguish it from the last time we thought that work was done. Also, what about when this is no longer your Work In Progress? How would you find this in a file search, or know at a glance which project this is when you’ve written three more books?
Do: “<Date><Working Title>.doc”
Again, if a file is labeled 2022-08-01-Uncoupled.doc (My current WIP) and stored in a folder specifically for this project, I can sort by date and see at a glance that this is my most recent version. I don’t need to label it “Final,” despite the emotional satisfaction of doing so. It’s also easy to find in a search, if I don’t know where I put it in a few years. I can be confident that there isn’t a FinalFinalFinalFINALdraftWIP.doc floating around somewhere that replaces this one. And, by including the date in the name of the file, I don’t have to worry that if I open an older version and hit save by accident, it marks the “last edited” date in the system to make it appear the most recent version.
Don’t: Keep Files in Multiple Local Folders
At one point, I had separate folders for “Drafts” “Querying” and “Books.” The first book I wrote had versions of it spread over all three folders, and one hanging out randomly on my desktop. (Did I mention my ADHD?) I hadn’t yet started good file name practices, so each of those folders contained a version of my project labeled “Final Draft,” and every single one of those “Final Draft” files was slightly different. So which one was my real final draft? I had opened and closed them enough that the system dates were unreliable. I could use specialized software to compare the versions and discover where they differed, but chances were, I was rolling dice and losing edits.
Do: Keep Drafts in a Single Central Location and Link
I decided to use a folder structure of Writing –> Books –> Title for my central repository. There I have all of my notes, scrivener and doc files, and even images for mood boards. I do have a separate Writing –> Query folder, where I keep query specific documents. But that folder contains a link to the draft I’m currently querying, not a separate copy. That way, if I spot a stray typo before sending out pages or full MS, I can correct it, and that change will reflect back on the central copy of the MS. I’m not breaking the chain, and that correction will be preserved if I go back and do a round of revisions between queries.
When I do make changes, however, I save a new dated version as backup. The querying copy is an exception to the naming protocols because it should be <last name>_<Title>.doc for purposes of attaching the file for agents. But it should also exist as a dated draft in the main folder, for future edits.
Don’t: Only Save In One Location
Computers fail. Hard drives fail. Files glitch. Theft happens. Malware happens. It’s easy to lose sight of just how impermanent electronic documents are. Some folks get around that by using only the cloud, such as working directly from Google Docs or Dropbox. But those accounts are just as vulnerable as your local machine.
Do: Minimum 1 Physical Drive, 1 Cloud
This is a bare minimum! The physical drive can be a laptop, desktop, external HD, anything that stores the files locally to a device that is within your physical control. The Cloud can be any of several paid or free cloud services, including Dropbox, OneDrive, Pcloud, or Google Docs. Your writing habit should include opening your writing session with a new file name, and ending it by saving a copy of that file to a new location. If you work from Dropbox, make a local copy on your machine at the end of the day. If you work from your local machine, save a copy to the cloud.
Again, that’s a minimum. Backup redundancy is always a good idea, but does require more discipline. Some authors will work from their laptop, backup their work to an external hard drive, then make separate backups to two cloud services. Those authors are very unlikely to ever lose more than a day’s work.
I split the difference, personally. My ADHD makes it important that my routines are as simple and automated as possible. So I work from my laptop, using Scrivener for drafting and LibreOffice for final layout/edits. Scrivener has the option to set a backup destination and back up your file with one click, but LibreOffice requires an extra step of “Save As” at the end of the day. I backup to PCloud. Once a week or so, I copy my entire writing folder into a zip file and store it in Dropbox for an additional reserve.
Dropbox and Pcloud do have automated options that will back up your files and folders, but after a glitch where Dropbox overwrote my local laptop files with the older cloud version, costing me a day’s work and 5K words on a first draft, I prefer to back up manually.
The most important things you can do to save yourself from losing your work are to work from a new, dated copy of the file each day, stored in a single central folder, and back it up to at least one separate location.