Backing Up your Writing

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.

Don’t: “FinalFinalFinaldraftWIP.doc”

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.

How to Receive Beta Reader Feedback

I can talk about writing craft and grammar, POV and character development. I can (and will) discuss how to give feedback on other people’s work. But one of the hardest skills a writer must develop is the ability to receive criticism.

Some people reportedly love criticism. They leap to the harshest editor they can find and lap it up. This post is for you other writers…the ones who maybe take it a little too personally when someone reads “their baby,” the story they’ve poured their life and heart into, and finds it wanting. That’s where I was, early-on, and receiving criticism mindfully will probably always be a work in progress for me.

What’s the goal?

You’ve handed your story to a beta reader, critique partner, Aunt Betty, etc. You’ve told them to tell you what they think, but deep down inside, what are you hoping they’ll say?

You must be honest with yourself as far as your motives, because you must then be honest with the person you’re asking for help.

It’s OKAY sometimes to just want to be told it’s great. Sometimes we just need a cheerleader to rekindle our love for a project and keep us going to the end. On writing Twitter, this has become known as a “positivity pass.” It’s particularly useful for first drafts that have gotten bogged down for lack of confidence. We’ve all hit that moment of despair mid-book where we just don’t know if it’s working anymore.

If your goal is a positivity pass, it’s very important to make it clear to the reader that the goal is not to find faults or correct anything; you just want to hear what’s working. If they can’t be a pure and enthusiastic cheerleader, if they simply must point out this one little thing that needs fixing, they’re not the right reader for you at this stage.

But in most cases, the goal is to make your story and your writing better, and that means digging into the places it is weak. You must keep this goal firmly in mind throughout the process.

You must be prepared to hear that there are things wrong with your story and writing craft.

Whether or not the manuscript is ready for criticism, if you as the author are not ready to hear it, you are wasting your time and your reader’s effort. Put it in a drawer and work on another project. Put some distance between you until you’re ready to hear about the flaws.

There WILL be flaws. There is no such thing as a book that couldn’t be improved. Even authors who have a dozen best-sellers will write an occasional flat character, POV violation, and plot hole. Your book is no different.

Don’t mistake your book for you.

Verbal Judo frames this as removing your ego from the situation.

Your writing and craft are not you. Writing a less-than-perfect book is not a reflection on you as a person, your value as a human being, or your future success as a writer. It is vitally important to separate critique of the book from critique of you as a person. (Yes, even if you’ve accidentally included a bigoted stereotype character that needs fixing.)

You should love your book and your characters, but don’t put them on a pedestal. They can be even better, with the help of an outside perspective.

Stop your first reaction

If your kneejerk response to critique is defensive, if you reject it immediately, stop. Take a moment. Remind yourself that it’s about making the book better.

Let’s face it, critique partners and beta readers are sometimes wrong. But if your first response is strong and emotional, you’re not in a place to effectively evaluate the feedback.

Even flawed feedback is useful

“What do they know?” “They don’t even get what I was trying to do!” “Why should I even listen to someone who uses comma splices!?”

When we’re confronted with information that challenges our views, one way we can defend ourselves against the discomfort is to dismiss the value of the information by attacking the source. When this is part of a strong emotional response, you should suspect your own motives here.

Remember, once your book is published, your readers won’t, by and large, have English degrees. You won’t have a chance to pre-screen them for reading comprehension or knowledge of genre tropes. Once your book is in the wild, anyone can read it and leave a review. If your beta reader doesn’t get what you were trying to do, at least admit the possibility that you just didn’t pull it off effectively enough for a wider audience.

Mind you, they could just be an exception, which is why you want many eyes on your book before you release it in the wild. But insight doesn’t require a degree or byline to be valid.

Never argue with the feedback.

Your job in receiving critique is to listen, not to defend. You can ask questions to clarify. You can ask for suggestions on how to fix a problem. The moment you start pushing back, blocking, or arguing, you’ve stopped listening.

The person giving critique is offering their emotional reaction to your writing. You don’t have to act on that information, but their feelings cannot actually be “right” or “wrong.” Their suggestions might or might not work out, but everything a beta reader says is a data point. It teaches you something about your reading audience. If it isn’t useful to this book, it may help shape a future work.

Show appreciation

Beta readers who actually finish a book and send thoughtful critique are GOLD, and I treasure them deeply. Even if I don’t use any of their feedback, they’ve put hours of their time into reading my imperfect work and trusted me enough to offer their genuine opinions. That’s amazing!

If every time a reader offered a critique, I got defensive and argued about it, I’d soon find myself in a bubble of the few readers willing to offer only praise. That might sound safe and comfortable, but I’d risk a rude awakening when the book left my bubble. It means I don’t hear the hard truths in time to do something about them. It also means I never actually get better as a writer.

So when you get critique you don’t like, stop, remove your ego, listen, remind yourself of your goals, and thank your reader for their efforts. You will be a better writer for it.

Commas and Hyphens in Adjectives, Oh My!

Multiple adjectives modifying a single noun need commas, right? But in a writing group I’m in, we spent some time debating why this sentence is incorrect:

“He sat at a hand carved, oak dining table.”

We could all tell by instinct that it is incorrect, but had trouble expressing why.

The correct punctuation would be:

“He sat at a hand-carved oak dining table.”

Understanding when noun modifiers need punctuation is a hair-tearing exercise in frustration for many writers. We rely on instinct and experience to recognize when to place commas and hyphens in noun/adjective combinations, but any editor will tell you our instincts are often wrong.

Turns out, there are actual (not-so) secret rules to this.

It starts with something called “compound nouns.”

Compound nouns are like Lego builds. They’re single items comprised of multiple components, but those components don’t really modify the noun; they are an essential part of it. Some examples include “Christmas tree,” “golf ball,” and “ice cream.” Even though they’re multiple words, they serve as a single, modifiable idea.

In our example sentence, “oak dining table” is a single compound noun. The only modifier is “hand-carved,” so as a single adjective, it does not require a comma.

So why is “hand-carved” hyphenated?

Sometimes we use groups of words to express a single thought that modifies a noun. That becomes a “compound adjective.” We hyphenate these when they appear before the noun they modify. In this example, we want “hand-carved” to represent a single thought, because “hand” and “carved” don’t modify the table individually (what’s a hand table?). They are a single modifier.

Another reason to hyphenate an adjective is when the meaning of a phrase is unclear without the hyphen. It serves the same purpose as above, to group words together as a single thought and make the meaning clear. For example, if I say that most of the children in a class live in two parent households, we have some ambiguity. Are these two separate parental households, or one household with two parents in it? In this case, using “two-parent households” clarifies the meaning. We’ve grouped “two” and “parents” into a single thought, modifying “households.” These situations are judgment calls, though, and your editor might disagree with your usage.

Now it gets tricky

Some compound nouns are written as one word, like “waistline” and “haircut.” Some are always hyphenated, like “mother-in-law.”

Also, the rules can differ by region, specialty, and publication. I’ve seen “dining table” hyphenated in several places, even though the majority of dictionaries do not do so.

The good news is that many publications HAVE a style guide that specifies things like hyphenation and treatment of common phrases. There are also wider-use style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or APA Stylebook, which can be good general guides to follow in the U.S. when no other guidance is available. But they’re not universal. Regardless of what you’re used to or you’ve been taught, always defer to the stated preferences of the publisher when dealing with punctuation.

The Psychology of Editing in Comic Sans

Comic Sans has a lot of haters, but could it be a great tool for editors?

This advice has been floating around Twitter and writing blogs for some time now. When you reach the editing stage of your book, converting the text to the Comic Sans font can help you catch those last elusive typos.  For some, this may not be worth the pain of having to look at Comic Sans.  If that’s you, I have good news! The font itself may not be the source of the magic.

Psychologists have focused a lot of research on a unique feature of our brain that deals with attention and perception.  Most people cannot possibly take in and consciously process every sensory feature of our world.  If you were actually aware of every individual leaf or blade of grass, every sound, and every odor, you wouldn’t be able to function.  Instead, our brains use a shortcut.  Most of the things we perceive actually fade into the background and disappear from our memory without notice.  What catches our attention is change. If we walk into a room we see every day, and something is different, we notice immediately.  The change stands out, and our brain starts seeking or constructing a reason for the change.’s that moment in the horror movie, where the person living alone comes inside and realizes…SOMETHING’S WRONG.  (That’s not where I left that picture/rug/towel/can of Spam!!!)

So how can we use this to our advantage?

McKeachie talks about how teachers can keep attention on their lectures using what he calls “stimulus change.”  If you break up a wall of lecture slide text with movement, music, or color change, students are less likely to tune out.  This is supported by psychological research on “novel stimuli,” which grabs our attention without conscious control, and helps us focus until we know that the change we perceive is safe.

You can use this mental shortcut to trick yourself into seeing things a different way, simply by presenting very familiar information (your manuscript) in a different way to your senses.  To that end, comic sans works great, because it is drastically different than the default serif fonts most word processors use.  But if you really can’t stand comic sans, any font that looks considerably different will have a similar effect.

On the downside, we do adapt quickly to change.  If you are editing your whole novel at a go, you might need to find two fonts and alternate them between chapters.  A change in color will help add to the effect. This will keep your focus fresh on the words.

But whatever you do, make sure you switch it back to a nice, black, readable Times New Roman-esque font before you send out your queries.  Agents want colorful novels, but that should probably not be taken literally.

(Pun intended, of course.)

Happy Editing!