Someone once said that there are two types of computer users; those who have lost data and those who will one day lose data.

If you use a computer or other digital device for capturing data of any sort long enough, chances are you will one day lose something; an unsaved document that disappears when the power goes, a flash stick with the only copy of the final draft of your novel, a hard drive with everything you have done in the last five years. The horror.

There is nothing like that sinking feeling in the moment you realize that your document is gone. You panic, try all sorts of things, and then stare at the screen wondering how or if you can get it back and then you suddenly want your mummy.

It’s happened to me enough times. So I know the pain.

Here are some tips to make sure you never get onto that boat. If you lose a file, you should know that you have a copy of it, easily accessible and as up to date as the one you lost – or close to it.

Losing a few hours of work is not as bad as losing a whole project that’s taken years to put together – Unless of course, the few hours of work is the most enlightened work you have ever done in your life…

Not every backup is a backup

If you have ten copies of your manuscript and they are all sitting on your laptop, you don’t have a real backup because if your hard drive crashed today, or if your laptop got stolen or crushed by a bus (it happens), your ten copies would be useless.

Here’s a different scenario. Say you have one copy of your manuscript on your laptop and a second on your external hard drive and those two devices are in your backpack or on your desk at the office. Do you have a real backup then?

Nope again. If your backpack got stolen or if your office caught fire overnight, you are back to square one.

What is a real backup?

A real backup is an accessible, up-to-date copy of your file which would ordinarily survive a physical or digital loss of the main copy.

Digital losses happen when hard drives malfunction, when flash sticks get corrupted, or when a virus destroys your Word documents. Physical losses are due to theft, fire, catastrophes due to weather, butterfingers, etc.

Obviously, this is relative. ‘Different physical location’ could mean a flash stick at a friend’s house, but if your city was hit by a massive flood, that wouldn’t count, right?

Ideally, what you are looking at is using a cloud service like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or iCloud, because you know their servers are not in the same location as you – and they have servers in multiple locations.

Even better, use more than one cloud service for your backups. So for instance I have my Scrivener Files sync to Microsoft’s OneDrive. Then Scrivener does a backup to a folder on my computer every time I exit the program. That folder is synced with Google Drive.

So at the end of the day, I have four copies of my Scrivener files.

  • The main working files on my computer
  • The synced version of the main working files on OneDrive
  • The Scrivener backup on my computer (in a different folder from the main working files)
  • The synced Scrivener backups on Google Drive.

It sounds like overkill, but the two versions of the files on my computer count as one set if we‘re talking about real backups. And once you set it all up, it just happens – by itself.

So, let’s break it down;

A real back up is kept in a different physical location

This means that a real backup must at the minimum be in a different physical location from the main copy of your work. A very easy way of achieving this is saving your work in a folder on your computer that syncs with a cloud service as explained above.

Other examples are iCloud and Dropbox. This also takes care of the next characteristic of real backups; keeping them current.

A real backup is as current as it needs to be

Automating your backups by installing the app from the cloud service of your choice onto your computer or mobile device and syncing the folders you want to be backed up is a good idea as it keeps your backups current.

But not all backups need to be exact mirrors of the current working files. Sometimes you want to have incremental backups because… rollback.

A real backup has integrity

When I was at University, I interned with a computer supply and repair company in Harare which did work for a lot of banks and government departments.

One day, one of the techies came into the office and told us the horror story of how a major client was in a bind because their server had crashed and all their backup tapes (in those days we used tapes) would not work.

This particular client had a tape for every day of the week. So on Monday they would stick the Monday tape into the backup drive and back up on that, on Tuesday, the Tuesday tape, etc and overwrite the previous week’s backups.

At any one time, therefore, they had seven backups. The idea was that if the system crashed on a Tuesday, they would simply load Monday’s back up and have lost only a day’s work.

If for some reason, Monday’s backup didn’t work, they would use the one from the day before, Sunday.

Obviously, when they designed this process, they never foresaw a situation where all seven tapes would not work. That is what had just happened. None of the backup tapes worked!

You can imagine the amount of sweating that happened in that server room as they tried backup tape number five, then number six, then, please work, Dear God please work, number seven.

What they needed to have done is to have an infinite 8th tape. That is, every seven days, they back up on a new 8th tape that they store away in a vault somewhere. And then maybe keep several months of 8th tapes before destroying them.

They also needed to replace the 7 tapes they were using frequently so that they were not using the same tapes for too long.

They also needed to have a process to check that the backups worked.

Those backups were useless. They had no integrity.

Thank goodness, backing up is so much easier today. The general idea of having iterative backups is a great one, but it also means you back up errors that you may only uncover much later.

Say you are working on a novel and you are backing up your work as you go.

Your cat or toddler accidentally deletes a whole chapter,  but you don’t realize this until days later when you are reading through your work. You freak out and then you turn to your daily backups but they won’t help you because you have dud backs up containing all the same errors as your main document.

The chapter is missing in all of them.

It sucks, right.

But! If you make it a habit to pull a copy of your current file out of your normal workflow and save it to a different location, so that you have a backup for every Friday, for instance, since your project began, if the document in your workflow gets corrupt, you can reach out to your Friday backups stash and pull in the most recent one. If that one has the error, you go to the one before that.

In the case of the deleted chapter above, you would just copy that particular chapter from the Friday back up into the current workflow document and you’re all caught up.

Backups can also lose their integrity if the devices you are using are infected by viruses or damaged somehow. Needless to say, get an antivirus.

What do you need to back up?

When we talk about backing up, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is their work files. But there are several other things that authors need to remember to backup. Here are a few:

  • Project research, scans photos, audio files that are on your computer and mobile devices
  • Contacts. You should be able to export a file containing all your contacts and save it.
  • Important emails. These can be backed on an app like Evernote or with an email backup application.
  • Passwords and other sensitive information.
  • Your website. Many authors forget to back up their sites. Even if your hosting service provides backup, it’s a good idea to install a plugin on your website that backs up the database and site files to an external service like Google Drive or DropBox.

Great tools for backing up

Happy backing up! 

Fungai Tichawangana
Author: Fungai Tichawangana

Fungai is a journalist, writer and web developer who is passionate about tech and promoting the arts. In 2015 he was awarded a Nieman Journalism Fellowship and Berkman Klein Fellowship for Journalism Innovation.

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