Monday, January 03, 2011

Wait! Back Up: Protecting Your Writing Files

By Technical Tom 

The Fiction University Tech Guy

Well, it's that time of year again. With a fresh set of resolutions in hand, we make bold plans, set strong agendas and optimistically get ready for the new year.  If you are anything like us, that level of motivation will last about 10 days, maybe two weeks, then it's back to business as usual. So my goal today is to capitalize on the heady “I can do it” feeling that is coursing through our veins and help you make a solid positive step for your new year.  Something you can accomplish in less time that a Geico commercial promises to save you 15% on your car insurance.  This can save you a lot more though.  It can save your world.

Pretty dramatic, right?

What I'm talking about is saving your writing, the worlds that you create.  I'm talking about backing up your data.

“Data”  It sounds so clinical, doesn't it? But you'll feel anything but clinical when your hard drive crashes, or a virus corrupts your files.  Suddenly the worlds you have spent days, weeks and months creating will simply be gone.  Well ok, maybe you will feel clinical: clinically depressed!

For nearly everyone, learning about backups works something like this:  One day your computer is stolen, or your hard drive crashes and you lose all of the files you had not realized you depended on so much.  You suddenly realize that there's no way to replace what was lost.  Then in a vengeance you set out to buy hardware to do regular backups on, swearing that you'll never make that mistake again.  You buy CD burners, DVD burners, extra hard drives and even tape drives.  Then over time you slowly forget to regularly maintain that backup regimen, and pretty soon you're right back where you started at.

This syndrome is actually pretty easy to avoid if you use the right tools. In fact, it can be so easy that you can fix it right now and not worry about it ever again.  So let's take a few moments and talk about backing up your computer and what you can do to make it surprisingly easy to save the important stuff that matters.

Types of Backups
Backups generally fall into two broad categories: System and Data.  A System backup is one where you are recording literally everything on your hard drive. These backups are huge, so most people fall out the habit of of performing backups regularly.  Backup systems are only helpful if you actually use them regularly.

That's where Data backups come in.  A Data backup is where you just backup the files that are meaningful to you and exist nowhere else: writing files, personal photos, the spreadsheet you track your bills on, a few choice videos or your baby.  These are files that can never be replaced if they get lost.  You can reinstall Windows, but you can't get back your wedding photos from MicroSoft.

There are a plethora of services available today that can make the task of routine backups of your critical files so simple that you will not even notice it happening.  You can set it up once and ignore it from now on, knowing that you can easily shrug off a stolen laptop, or a crashed hard drive, even an accidentally deleted file.

Perhaps the best among these services is DropBox.  You can set up a free account and get it up and running in under five minutes (Windows, MAC and Linix compatible).  It will create a folder on your computer (or you can pick an existing one) and from now on, everything you put in that folder will have a copy saved on a remote server.  The primary goal of DropBox is synching files among several computers.  Janice uses it to keep her novel synched between her laptop and her desktop, so she can edit files from anywhere, anytime and never lose revisions or has to worry about working on an old copy.  DropBox does this amazingly well.  But you don't need multiple computers to take advantage of using DropBox as a remote backup service.

With the free account, you get up to two GigaBytes of storage. (hint: when it comes to word processing files, that's a lot!)  To give you an idea of how much that is, each book in the Healing Wars Trilogy only takes about 600 to 700k. Assuming Janice stored five drafts of each book, she could write over 600 books before she ran out of space on DropBox to store her files. And that's just the free version.  You can increase to 50Gb or even 100Gb of storage by paying a monthly fee.

Each time you update a file in your selected folder, DropBox will automatically update the copy on their servers.  If you are not online or it did not have enough time to synch up, don't worry.  It will synch automatically the next time you are online.  All you have to do is be online occasionally and all of your work will be safe and secure.

In the event that you need to recover your files, you just go to any computer and install DropBox and log in. All of your files will be delivered to the folder on the new computer.  How easy is that?

As a personal note: I would not recommend using an online backup service for storing video and music.  Video files tend to be rather large and can take a very long time to synch to the server.  While DropBox does not mind if you store video files on their servers they can take up a lot of space and go beyond the free storage limit easily.  If you use a lot of video, consider burning them to DVDs or CDs and use the online service for smaller files.

It's easy, and you can set it up in less time than it took to read this post. So quick, while your energy level is high, your New Year's motivations are in full gear and before you have a chance to forget, make sure your backups are taken care of.  If you already have your own backup strategy, check it and be sure that it is working correctly.  If not, take five minutes and set up DropBox.  When something bad happens, you'll be glad that this was the New Years' self improvement step you actually completed!

DropBox is available for Windows, MACs, Linix and even for your smartphone.


  1. I believe you have just saved my life.

    I mean... my files :D

    Great post!

  2. While DropBoxCDs and use the online service for smaller files.

    *points to above* Don't think that says quite what you meant it to, sir. ^_^

    I've used Dropbox, but I need more space, myself. (My fiction folder alone is 1.91GB, probably because I keep my research with my text.) I've been looking around at alternatives for an off-site backup.

    At the moment, I use an external hard drive for system and data backups, and a flash drive for backing up the things I'll need immediately accessible if my comp crashes. (I'm not taking an external HD to the library.) I'm very careful about making sure everything's properly ejected, etc., before removing it from the computer, to reduce risk of any data corruption.

    And, um, about working directly FROM DropBox , I've heard horror stories from some folks about data corruption and damaged files from doing that.

  3. Thank you Mr. Hardy. This is invaluable information.

  4. Thanks for the tip. I've heard about DropBox, but never folowed up. Sounds like I should.

  5. Excellent and timely advice - I'm off to tweet. Happy new year, Mr and Mrs Hardy!

  6. For Carradee and anyone else who needs more than 2GBs -

    I use SygarSync. It's very similar to DropBox with online storage and automatic sync between multiple machines, but you get 5GBs free rather than 2GBs. I've been using it for a year now with no issues.

  7. I'll take a look at it. I really do need to backup my files more often, and something easy would be helpful.

    And it was fun to hear from Janice's other half. You're a pretty good writer yourself. (I'm still chuckling about the Geico reference.)

  8. Great tips! I definitely need to back up my work more often so I'l look into Drop Box right away.

  9. Normally you need more than 2 GB to backup, so
    I use UpdateStar Online Backup, an online backup service with unlimited storage for home and business users with rave reviews from the press. You´ll get it for a small price.

  10. I've never had any corruption problems with DropBox, except the one time I shut my laptop top before it had fully saved/synced. As long as I give it a minute to save, it's been great.

    Thanks for all the other suggestions everyone! There are plenty of great options out there. Backups are one of those things we let slide until disaster strikes - either to us or a friend, and often it's to late then.

  11. For writers, DropBox is definitely a set-it-and-forget wonder tool.

    Thing is, I think I’m using it wrong. Since the files I put in it haven’t been backed up since I copied them into Dropbox months ago, I’m thinking you’re supposed to move the original files themselves into the DropBox folder.

    It makes sense now, but I thought it was like with an external hard drive, where you simply tell it what files to back up.

    But with this, you change your folder structure and keep all the writings you want backed up in that one Dropbox folder, and that's where you go to bring up your work each day.

    Is that right?

  12. Yes, you work from the DropBox folder on your desktop. It syncs up with the files online.

  13. Thanks! And it only took me three months to figure that out. :-)

  14. It's worth thinking through what kinds of disaster there may be and the kind of backup and restore methods that you'd need in each case.

    I would suggest that you need a remote backup and a local backup. Some kinds of disaster may leave you without internet access and a local copy would be valuable.

    Dropbox can do both of these things for you, if you have a spare computer.

    One potential problem with Dropbox is that if you delete a file then all copies will be deleted. However Dropbox will keep your deleted file for 30 days, so if you notice in that time you can fetch it back. After that, it's really gone.

    I must say, Dropbox is pretty near perfect as long as you have internet access to backup/restore.

    I use Dropbox for synchronisation and Jungledisk for backup. As well as this I use Rdiff and Unison to make local copies via a spare computer, which also copies to an external drive from time to time.