You know what breaks my heart as a fellow writer? When I read tweets like these in the morning, I want to sob into my cereal:
“I just discovered that I lost my 1st draft manuscript of 50k words... because my backup went weird and it wiped all my writing.”
“LOST. THE. OPENING. TO. A. MANUSCRIPT. Why do I not have a backup? Why don’t I save things in the correct places? Whyyyyyyy?!?!?”
The above are real tweets with names removed to protect the traumatized.
The question is why, with so many backup technologies available, does this still happen? It can be overwhelming to figure out the right backup strategy. There are too many choices: backup drives and cloud backup, Scrivener backups, Google Drive and Google Docs, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox, to name just a few.
As an ex-techie (before I became a digital nomad writer), I’d like to share a framework for how to approach protecting your own work and sanity.
1. Online Backup
The number one solution I recommend to my writer friends is to use an online service. Not to be confused with placing individual files in a cloud location like Dropbox or OneDrive, online backup offers an automated backup of every file on your computer to a secure cloud location.
Pro Tip: Invest in online backup of all your files.
The biggest benefit of this service is automation. You need not remember to back up. In fact, once set-up, you do nothing. Whenever you are connected to the internet, all of your updated files are automatically backed up to the cloud.
In my opinion, online backup is a better solution than a physical drive. The unfortunate reality is if your house or apartment is flooded or on fire (this has happened to several writer friends), everything will probably be damaged or warped, including the backup drive you “securely” placed in a drawer.
Although the best advice is to store your backup drive off-site (i.e., not in the same location as you and your laptop), how many of us actually do that? I know for me, as a constant traveler, it would be impossible.
The only downside to online backup is when you first start, it takes significant time to create a copy of your entire hard drive (several days or weeks in the background while you continue to work).
A view of my Backblaze backup working in the background:
2. A physical ‘recovery’ drive
It is also worthwhile to have a physical backup drive, paired with software that backs up your entire computer, such as Time Machine (for Mac).
If your cat knocks your laptop off the table into the bathtub, a full restore will be easier and faster on a new laptop with a Time Machine-style backup, which saves not only your files, but your configuration and application settings. With a PC, I’m not sure there is an equivalent built-in software yet, but some external drives come with utilities to enable a rapid full restore.
Pro Tip: All hardware eventually fails. Don’t let any physical device be the one place holding your precious files.
Pro Tip: If you need to plug your hard drive into your computer to back up, schedule this twice a week on your calendar to remind yourself.
3. Application Level Auto-Saves and Backups
Within your writing application, saves and backups are different. Gwen Hernandez does a nice job of explaining the difference in this article: Protect Your Writing with Scrivener Backups.
a. Auto Saves
With Scrivener, your saves are automatic; because the words are saved as you type. Google Docs behaves similarly.
However, with Microsoft Word, it’s up to you to configure your auto-save correctly. You’ll find this setting under Word/Preferences/Save.
Pro Tip: Configure your Word application to auto save at least every five minutes.
Word Auto Save Settings
b. Application File Backups
Both Word and Scrivener will automatically back up your work in progress writing file. For Word, make sure you have “Always create backup copy” checked on the save settings screen.
For Scrivener, see Gwen’s article above (I strongly support her recommendation to place your backup copy on a cloud drive).
Pro Tip: Saving files to the cloud is great (especially for working on multiple devices). But not the same as having a backup.
It’s now possible to save your working versions of files (Scrivener, Word, Pages) directly to a cloud drive (like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive). This is a great option if you work from multiple devices and want to access the same file from each.
However, just remember that saving a single copy in the cloud is similar to having a single copy on your desktop. If that copy is corrupted, overwritten or deleted, you may be in trouble.
Pro tip: Every important file needs, at minimum, one additional backup copy (even if you are saving to the cloud).
c. Versioning Features
Thankfully, the most common version of losing our work isn’t our laptop going for a swim or a house fire. In my experience, the common way to lose progress is when I accidentally overwrite my own words.
Luckily, some writing software can find what was written in prior versions, without ever leaving your document.
Pro Tip: Versioning features are your friend; it’s worth the time to learn them.
I avidly use Scrivener snapshots. Sometimes, I’ll even click into prior revisions of a scene when I’m stuck for words, just to mine for inspiration.
A view of my Scrivener snapshots, within a single scene
If you write using Google docs, their version history feature is similar, because it lets you see the full text (and compare) to prior versions.
Where to find Google version history
Within Microsoft Word, this versioning function is not yet as capable. It’s only available if you are saving to Microsoft’s cloud storage, and not as sophisticated, but still worth a peek if you use OneDrive.
What is your backup strategy? What other tips would you give writer colleagues for safe-guarding their work?
Lainey Cameron is a digital nomad and author of women’s fiction. A tech industry dropout, her first book was inspired by a decade of being the only woman in the corporate board room. The novel won 2ndplace in the Rising Star Award for unpublished Women’s Fiction and tells the story of a Silicon Valley investor who, when faced with her husband’s mistress across the negotiating table, must learn to work with her or jeopardize both their careers.
An avid travel instagrammer, Lainey finds inspiration everywhere. She is currently working on her second novel, a tale of an instagrammer who witnesses a murder and is pursued around the world.
She’s an active volunteer with Women’s Fiction Writers Association and is on a mission to obliterate the term aspiring writer, which she believes saps writers’ ownership and creative confidence.