Sunday, 16 September 2007


This wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t bang on for a bit about back-ups. Anyone who knows me already can skip this bit. You'll have read it before. Ad infinitum.

This a hobby horse of mine for a number of reasons. It began in the early ‘70s when I spent a good deal of one year writing my first novel. It was drafted longhand and went everywhere with me so I could work on it. When it was nearly finished it slipped out of my bag on a train and was never seen again. No loss to the literary world, it was still heartbreaking.

I have since gone through a number of traumatic changes of computer, most notably from an Amstrad PCW using 3 inch diskettes to one fitted with a 3½ inch drive; and from that second PCW (using LocoScript software) to a Windows PC. Each time, I was in the heart stopping situation of having all my work on disks with no guarantee that the conversion to a new format would work.

Whether your writings are personal jottings or course work, whether they are letters to the Council or your latest novel, they represent the result of hours (possibly years) of hard work. It would be a shame (not to mention a matter of enormous heartbreak) if you lose that work because your computer crashes, is infected (ant-virus software is an absolute must), is stolen, or floats away on flood water. By the simple expedient of making back-ups of all your work, you can help avoid the possibility of losing years of research, all those essays, all those lovingly crafted poems, short stories, those tens of thousands of words you had produced toward your novel.

Back-ups come in various forms and are achieved via different routes. I hope this guide will help you sort out the most appropriate. It will help, however, if you treat yourself to a good quality manual for your computer’s operating software as well as the word processing software you use. The ‘Complete Idiot’ and the ‘...for Dummies’ series of books are usually very good, but there are others as well.

There are a number of important basic things to keep in mind. The first is that you have to get into the habit of saving your work on a regular basis. Hit the save button every time you pause for thought or go to make a cup of coffee. Computers have auto-save set-ups (open Word, then Tools menu, Options, Save and select auto-save interval), but these don’t necessarily leave you with the material you thought you had. If you hit the save button, you save what is on screen.

The second important thing is that you get into the habit of making back-ups on a regular basis. I do mine daily as part of the closing down process when I have finished working. You can set your machine to do it for you (see below) or you can do it yourself. Either way, regular and often is the important thing.

The next important thing is that if you go away (even to do the shopping); don’t leave your back-ups on your desk next to your computer. If your machine spontaneously combusts, is dropped into Burglar Bill’s Swag Bag, or is otherwise rendered to a non-working pile of garbage, your back-ups stand a very good chance of going the same way. Put them somewhere safe. If you are paranoid (like me) you will have two sets of back-ups; one to keep with you and one to deposit with a trustworthy friend (after, of course, you have set passwords so they can’t steal your bestselling novel or sure-fire blockbusting screenplay).

Fourthly, don’t save your material in an exotic format. Stick to the major forms. Rich Text Format (RTF) is universal. Word documents are nearly universal and are easily converted. If you use obscure word processing software, remember to check when you save a document that it is RTF.

Types of back-up
Hard copy
This does not refer to gritty thrillers. All it means is that you print up your work and put it in a folder. I’m sure you can spot the flaw in this plan straight away, especially if you are on the twentieth draft of your 120,000 word novel. However, you can always keep a hard copy of the final drafts of your work, neatly bound in spring back folders. This means you can refer to work without having to switch on your computer. It also means you get to see your work in print, albeit A4 and one copy only.

Floppy disk
Floppy disks (or 3½ inch diskettes as they are sometimes known) may seem a bit passé to some these days (some computers no longer have floppy drives), but they are an excellent and easy means of keeping copies of your work, especially if you only have a small amount of work or want to transport a small amount from one location to another. They are also easy to use as you can copy work easily from your computer to the disk, using the Copy To facility of your software. A floppy disk will easily hold the full manuscript of a novel (if only publishers would realize this).

Zip Drives
Sometimes known as super-floppies, Zip disks and their drives are no longer as popular as they once were. This is partly because CD and DVD offer greater capacity and more universal application; but also because of a hardware failure that led to legal action against Iomega, the principle manufacturer of the system. When they work, they work well and can read and write at great speed. When they fail, they do so spectacularly, damaging the disks (which then go on to damage the read/write heads in other drives). They are waning in popularity these days. Unless you have a Zip drive already (in which case you know how to use it), look for something else.

Digital Audio Tape systems are also slowly disappearing as they have been superseded by more convenient and capacious media for data storage. As with Zip, unless you have DAT already look for something else.

USB Stick/Pen/Flash Drive
These nifty little gadgets slot directly into a USB port on your computer (that’s one of those little oblong slots). They are as easy to use as a floppy disk, can hold huge amounts of information (up to 2000 times as much as a floppy) and are easy to carry. Please note, if you use one away from your home computer, don’t forget it! I have a friend who works in a University library and they have literally hundreds of these things in a box in the office that students have left behind.

Memory Card
Your digital camera probably has one of these. They can also store data. Some computers and printers have a card slot built in. If not, you can buy card readers that plug into a USB port. Like pen drives, they are easy to carry; like pen drives they are easy to lose and leave behind.

You can copy your work to CDs and DVDs as well. Best to choose rewriteable ones as these can be... well... rewritten over and over. Using them is a little more complex than a floppy or a Pen Drive, but once you get the hang of things, they can contain vast amounts of information as well as collections of pictures, movie, and music. The software required to burn to these disks will be discussed below.

External drive
An external drive is just that. It is the same as your computer’s hard drive, but in a little box that sits on your desk and sometimes winks at you (at least, mine does, the cheeky thing). It can be plugged into your computer via a USB port and can have the same capacity as your computer’s internal hard drive. This means that you can save everything (even your personalised software settings, your e-mail address book, your templates, and so on), all at the click of a button. They come in different shapes and sizes, some being more portable than others. They are the most expensive option, but if you have a lot of material and use your computer a great deal, they are well worth investing in.

CD/DVD burning software
There are a number of packages on the market. If you bought a computer recently, you probably have a basic package pre-installed. They are usually very simple to use and in between compiling discs of your favourite hits, you can copy data (your files) to them. Play with the software and learn how to use it. Some of this software has a facility known as ‘drag-to-disc’ (or variations thereof) whereby you can copy files to CD or DVD in the same way you do to floppy.

External Drive software
You don’t actually need this as you can do it manually, but if you have large numbers of files, it is much better to set up a synchronization software. If you buy an external drive it will come with software – some easier to use than others. I use Allway Sync which is free for light use (and a modest one off charge for heavy use). Details can be found at:

Online Back-up Services
If you have an ‘always on’ broadband connection, you can use one of a number of services that allow you to keep an updated copy of all your work at a remote back-up site. The advantages are that your work is entirely safe from floods, fires, accident and so on. You can also download your files to any computer at any time. The disadvantage is that there's a monthly charge. It isn’t much, but if you are on a budget, it is worth remembering. A number of the larger Internet Service Providers now offer this service along with protection against viruses, spyware, and so on.

As an afterword, it is worth keeping all your software in one place as well. These days it is usually on CD. Buy a zip up CD case (with enough pockets to store what will be an ever growing collection of disks) and keep everything in there (including a list of serial numbers, contact addresses, and other important information). Should your computer crash, should you need to buy a new one, or should you need to get out of the house quickly, your software and your back-ups can go straight in the bag with other essentials and save you much heartache later on.

If you have downloaded software and have no copy on disk, make sure you back it up. Most software licences allow for a back-up disk to be made, and if you are using an external hard drive, you have plenty of room there to make a copy as well.

As another afterword, you will notice the variant spelling of disc/disk. It really depends on which manual you read and I’ve given up trying to be consistent.


Papoosue said...

Somewhat spookily, I have recently been thinking about this very subject. For some reason unknown to man, my PC will not let me backup in the normal way (via system tools or whatever it's called)and so I generally trust to luck. I think I need to backup to DVD/CDs don't you? Especially all those photos that I keep meaning to backup but haven't got around to yet. Thanks for the reminder Graeme. And if I ever get that new laptop.....

Graeme K Talboys said...

Ooh. Yes. It really is an obsession of mine. I have never been able to use the inbuilt Microsoft tools with any success. But I urge everyone to keep copies, and so easy once you are in the habit of doing it.

Andrew said...

Good ideas...but wake up and smell the 21st century!
Mail it to yourself using gmail etc and it will sit out in some set of servers distributed all over the globe until the end of time! Note that this doesn't cost you a single dime.
Heck using Google apps you can edit the dang thing online and never lose a single word of it. They don't have great editing features tho, and for now you need an internet connection...

Graeme K Talboys said...

I admire your faith in technology. Having had stuff disappear from hacked servers, I'm a little more cautious. Plus there are a lot of people who don't have or don't want constant, broadband access (or whose broadband is subject to limits).

It's also a matter of control and trust. I like my back-ups where I can see them. As for Google... knowing their designs on the written word, I wouldn't trust my work anywhere near them.

Lane said...

Thanks Graeme for the reminder. After a couple of nasty 'accidents' I do now use one of those little pen things (you can tell I'm completely au fait with technology can't you).
I also email it to myself at gmail but that's just my paranoia.
I have 'Open Office' on the laptop and it crashes with alarming regularity. Saving every coffee break is a necessity as its auto recovery is dire.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post and excellent advice. I learned the hard way last fall when my harddrive crashed. Thank goodness I'd backed up my books, but I still lost a lot of things (like digital photos and emails). Now I back up my books every time I do any significant work, and I back up everything else important on a regular basis.

Andrew said...

Hmm...well there's probably more risk of someone stealing something off your computer than an online storage system...but point taken.

I personally just copy my work to another computer periodically.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I suppose the method is not important; just as long as you have all your stuff backed up somewhere reliable that you find easy to use.

CTaylor said...

Several months ago I had a dream that I was on a tube in London and, while I was putting my coat on, someone snatched my laptop from my seat and ran away with it. I was distraught - my novel, gone!

After I posted about it someone suggested I try backing up my novel on Yahoo Briefcase. It's something I try and every time I've done some more editing. I also back up my novel on a flash pen but I haven't done that for a while. You post has reminded me that I should! Thanks Graeme.

Graeme K Talboys said...

A real nightmare! Glad it was only a dream.

wordtryst said...

I'll put a link to this post on my blog if you don't mind, Graeme. I'm usually diligent about backups, but I'm in a sticky spot right now because I didn't backup a couple weeks of edits to my current WIP and a lightning storm did something nasty to my system.

Backup, backup, backup.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Sounds nasty. I hope you didn't lose anything else. And please feel free to link to the post.

Kerenhappuch said...

If only I had been given such valuable advice when the world was new and all. Now having taken your advice all I need is the ability to keep all my files tidy and keep notes in note books instead of scrappy bits of paper which are never where I thought I put them. Thank you oh wise Bavian, where would we be without you?

Graeme K Talboys said...

Shoe boxes (or containers of that ilk) are ideal for loose notes. You can stick labels on the ends, line a few up on a shelf and put your scraps into the appropriate box. Sort through every now and then and clip together ones that follow a common theme. Hey presto - poem, short story, article, novel!

wordtryst said...

Finally did ! (I'm slow but I get there eventually). I put a link to this post on my blog.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Hoorah! Well done. Good start to the new year.