Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 26, 2019

3-Tier Backup for Writers

Lainey Cameron

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. 

Provided as a service to which you subscribe annually, it costs $5-6 a month or around $70 a year for a well-known service like Backblaze or Carbonite

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?  

About Lainey

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.

Find her online at www.laineycameron.com where she posts progress of her books and tech tips for writers on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook.

19 comments on “3-Tier Backup for Writers”

  1. A great reminder, Lainey! A few decades back (before all of these wonderful automated options), I read about an author who had carefully saved her completed novel in three formats: on her computer, on a back-up drive, and on paper. When her house was destroyed by a tornado, all three were gone. I've been fanatic about backing up to the cloud (or, back then, to a designated email account) ever since. Nice that you highlighted that things like OneDrive are not the same as a true back-up --- I need to look into that more!

    1. Yeah, I know more than one person who lost everything in the recent CA fires, and it made me remember not only that life is so precious (realistically at that point all that matters is your loved ones) and nothing is truly guaranteed ; except for maybe that the truly unexpected happens sometimes?

      Hugs from (currently) Portugal!

  2. Hi there. Great to get this reminder. Yesterday my browser got hijacked on my MacBook and gave me a big scare. I thought Mac was safe! I scrambled to back up all my writing folders on a portable USB stick which attaches to my handbag - something I always keep with me.
    Best tip: email your work to yourself. WORD has an envelope icon, just click and send at the end of each session. The files are mere kilobytes, so it won’t matter how regular or old your versions are. They’re always in date order, so easy to track back. Note: chapter number or scene title are a good idea in subject lines.
    Thanks for the tips.

    1. Eekm that would scare me, too! Yup, the old email your work trick can certainly work. I like to do it with scans of my paper notes (also means I don't kneed to keep them with me when I pack up to make our next trip).

  3. Wonderful information that so many of us take for granted at times. Thanks for providing such valuable insight.

  4. Lainey, This may be the most important post ever! I've thought about it a bunch, and I'm signing up for Carbonite today. I know people who lost everything (including external hard drives) in a fire.

    And the auto save in Word tip helps too - I'm guilty of saving over the most recent copy with an older one. Have no idea how, but I've done it more than once... Grrrr.

  5. I do several things: I have Scrivener set to back up to my computer often...I have Carbonite, I back up to a memory stick, I print drafts, AND I email versions of my book to myself on a gmail account as I write the book. When the book is finished, I send an email to myself with the final version. I use gmail because that account "lives" on the internet, and isn't dependent on my computer or email account getting messed up. I could access my gmail from a friend's computer if necessary.

    1. Man, you are doing all the things, Laurie!

      I'm afraid I'm not that disciplined. Generally by the time I log off, I just want to go drink wine and forget to email anything, lol. I'm in awe that you do all of that!

  6. You are speaking my language! I think everyone should have multiple backups and evaluate them every so often. I used to have Carbonite, but I let it lapse. And thankfully, my guy swooped in with a huge external drive and copied it all down. He's amazeballs with disaster recovery.

    Everyone needs to keep backups of their stuff! I do use OneDrive as my cloud file storage and I count that as one of my forms of backup, since I can access it anywhere. My Scrivener files are saved there too. 🙂

    1. I've been thinking about moving my core Scrivener files to a cloud drive but I'm often offline while I'm working (travel is us!) and worry a bit that I've heard folks had some conflict issues with Scrivener in various cloud drives (just made me a teeny bit nervous).

      Well done for having all the things though! You've clearly thought it through!

  7. I've lost things before due to a hard drive failure, so I learned my lesson. I have an 8TB NAS running a private cloud on my home network. Everything get backed up to that--phones, computers, tables...everything. I also do regular backups of that to an external drive that gets locked up in my fireproof safe. I really should do off-site storage as well, but I haven't gone that far yet.

    1. Wow that's sophisticated! I think many of us (me included) would struggle to get such a great setup!

      One sad thing in the recent Sonoma fires was they were so crazy hot that many supposably 'fireproof' safes did not make it ( I had to go back and read the articles to make sure I didn't misunderstand this at the time, but it was true). So some kind of cloud or offsite still makes sense (sounds like you have that).

  8. Thanks for the reminders, Lainey! I used to think my Time Capsule and the iCloud and my occasional memory stick were enough, but I've been thinking about another off-site storage possibility lately. Thanks for the Backblaze option!

  9. So i believe I have too many backup devices. I have MYBook which auto backs-up regularly. I use a USB, I use Dropbox for copies and Icloud/OneDrive. I have four computers that I regularly work on and sometimes I've ran into multiple copies since Scrivener just makes duplicates arbitrary that are saved within hours of each other. And I really want a central location for all my systems. I'l writing my PhD and I have several novels ongoing. It gets frustrating. I will look into the online service. Thanks.

  10. Thanks for summarizing the whole back-up world for us, Lainey. I would add that I use Scrivener's and Word's automated "save" features, BUT make sure you save them to the cloud or somewhere other than your hard drive, or you are not really protecting your work in case of all the possible disasters that can happen. I like the idea of Carbonite, though, and will look into that.

  11. Thank you. As someone who has spilled tea all over my laptop, I found this piece to be very useful. I have an external hard drive but it never occurred to me that a) it might fail, and b) if the apartment caught on fire, it would be in there. I have just invested in Backblaze. Much appreciated!

  12. I needed this so much! I'm the worst about backing up. Even though I know the importance of it. You've lit a fire under me, and I will be taking care this right away. Thank you.

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