How to Prevent Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare: Losing Your Work

How to Prevent Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare: Losing Your Work

Beware: What you’re about to read is a real-life horror story as told in The Write Life Community Facebook group.

“Gone. ALL of it. Gone. Every old idea I ever jotted down. Gone. Every short story, script, chapters of multiple books. Gone. An entire universe of superhero ideas. Poems, short stories… gone. I have NO IDEA how it happened. None. I can reason out how I may have lost some things, but most everything was so redundantly copied in various places. Yet somehow, it is all gone.”

This is every writer’s worst nightmare.

Losing writing isn’t new

Saving our words from annihilation has been a problem that’s long plagued writers, even before computers made our writing lives so much easier (yet simultaneously more complex).

In 1922, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, lost his works-in-progress and his carbon copies when they were stolen during a train ride to Switzerland. Hemingway recounts the horror in A Moveable Feast: “I was sure she could not have brought the carbons too….It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.”

If Hemingway had written on a computer instead of a typewriter, maybe he wouldn’t have lost those pages. Then again, if you’ve ever lost your words due to a bad hard drive, a power outage or a Microsoft Word error, you know that’s not true.

In fact, even one of the most technologically sophisticated companies of our day almost lost an entire movie because, unbeknownst to them, their backups had been failing for a month prior to a major incident. Had a supervising technical director not had the only extra copy of the entire film on a hard drive at home, Toy Story 2 may have been completely erased.

In other words, whether you write on paper or with a keyboard, the specter of losing your work is always lurking just behind your shoulder.

So, let’s kill the ghosts of future lost words.

losing your writing

A writer’s four-step backup action plan

The only time a writer should choose redundancy is when creating a backup plan.

Since the goal is to back up your precious, hopefully money-making words, having multiple backup avenues is imperative. The following steps are listed by ease of use, with the easiest step listed first.

I recommend incorporating as many as possible into your backup process.

1. Save early and save often

While many of today’s programs are smart enough to autosave, forcing yourself to locally save a file multiple times during its creation is a good habit.

But what if you get a virus, someone steals your laptop or your toddler wants to play Godzilla on your computer? Consistently saving your work is step one, but do not rely on this step to save your writing bacon.

2. Use local external backups

PCs and Macs both have set-it-and-forget-it whole-computer software solutions.

For Macs, that’s Time Machine. For PCs, that’s Backup. Learn how to use these no-cost solutions to locally back up your entire hard drive.

Invest in saving your words by buying an external hard drive. They’re so relatively inexpensive now that you can purchase more than what you need for less than $100. (If you’re already saving to an external hard drive, share what make and model you use in the comments.)

3. Use a cloud backup solution

Cloud backup solutions like BackBlaze ($5/month), Carbonite ($59.99/year), Mozy ($5.99/month), and Crashplan for Small Business ($10/month, per device) create off-site, cloud-based backups of your entire computer.

Should something catastrophic happen to your hard drive, you’ll be able to download all of your files to a new drive. Some of these services will even send you a new hard drive with your files.

Before deciding on a service, do your research. Though their costs and personal plans mostly offer the same benefits, they differ in certain details. (I use and recommend BackBlaze.)

Tip: When you first sign up for one of these services, let the cloud backup program run when you’re not using your computer. Since it needs to upload every file on your computer, you’ll notice a serious slowing of your internet speed. However, future backups, which ought to happen behind the scenes as you go about your work, won’t require as much bandwidth since the service only needs to upload new or updated files.

4. Use a one-off cloud solution

Services like DropboxMicrosoft OneDrive and Google Drive provide plenty of free storage for your one-off, offsite backup needs. (Tip: Microsoft provides Office 365 users with a gig of free OneDrive storage.)

Each of these services also offers syncing applications so you can simultaneously save a file to your local drive and your cloud storage. Scrivener can also sync automatic backups to cloud storage sites.

Don’t be tempted to rely only on Google Drive’s excellent Google Docs either. Even Google can be hacked, and even its servers and built-in redundancies can suffer failure.

Don’t fall prey to believing that safety necessarily results from longevity. Although each of these services has been around for a while (in internet years), never rely on a single service as your backup solution.

If you truly don’t want to ever lose one iota of your writing, you need to incorporate all four of these backup solutions.

Bonus tip: Use off-site external storage

This is akin to offsite cloud storage, but you’re removing the internet from the equation.

Some writers swap external hard drives with each other once a month for storage at each other’s houses. (If you suspect they may snoop, password protect it!) This may be an extreme solution, but I’m sure Pixar’s glad someone had a copy of Toy Story 2 at their house.

If you don’t have a redundant backup solution, spend time today creating a process.

What you’ll invest in time and money will more than pay for itself when you never have to worry about losing your words.

Have you experienced a catastrophic loss of your writing or did you change your backup plan after that? Tell us how you ensure your writing isn’t lost in the comments below.

Filed Under: Craft
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19 comments

  • I use a USB stick back up, an external hard drive back up, and I also send an electronic copy of my manuscript to one of my kids – I update the copy I send to them every few weeks.

    • Cat Lover says:

      I have emailed my story to many of my friends and it is also saved in google drive. I may copy it to Microsoft Word, but I might forget to update it. This post was both helpful and terrifying!

  • A useful post. I use an external drive to save my work as well as using dropbox.

  • Jarvee says:

    It’s better to use as many options as possible. I use OneNote online, Google Drive, USB and external hard drive. Better safe than sorry.

    “Some writers swap external hard drives with each other once a month for storage at each other’s houses.” Sounds extreme but anyways good idea. 🙂

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    Thanks for the great advice! I use most of the above, plus printing out on paper.

  • Edward R Fox says:

    At the end of every major work session I send the file to myself as an attachment, to one or more of my email addresses, Yahoo, Google, etc. My most important documents are saved this way. If, God forbid, my home should go up in flames I’ll at least have a skeleton back-up of my most important stuff to download. But this should be only part of a comprehensive solution.

  • Gail Govan says:

    A friend of mine who is a writer sends me emails with her work attached which I save in my email folders. We started doing that a few years ago, when I had bought an external hard drive and then ran into my incompetency, never using the thing. I have not yet asked someone how to use one of those.

  • I email the stuff to myself.

  • D. Day says:

    I email a copy to myself and to a trusted friend. I also use my external hard drive.

  • Neha Srivastava says:

    What do you do when a famous writing platform makes sudden uninformed changes, resulting in you losing your musings?

    Case in point is theprose.com I’ve been a user of the platform for more than a year (nearly two) and am/was also a Prose Partner as per their partner program.

    Recently, they decided to change their login options, removing twitter as one of the login options, unannounced. I was registered on the platform with my twitter id. Now, I cannot login.

    I’m not sure if I’ve really lost my work – musings, prose and poems – that I wrote there. Wondering if it is at all a good idea to be on social writing sites, given that they can change moods at their whim.

    • Wendy says:

      That goes to “why you don’t rely on a single system” (ESPECIALLY a “Cloud” system)

      As to your login issues, if it hasn’t been that long, it’s probably still there.

  • Darlene says:

    I e-mail a copy to myself and put it into a personal folder, putting the date and title in the Subject field so that I know which one is most current. I’ll periodically delete the older emails. I also have an external hard drive which I keep ALL document files on and work from those files, avoiding my computer altogether. That way if I am hacked in any way, my files are protected. Also, remember NOT to leave your external hard drive plugged into your computer. Safely removed that hardware after each session/day of writing. 🙂 One other way to safely store a copy of your work on an external hard drive away from your home is to place it in a safety deposit box.

  • Emma says:

    When I was on what I call “v0” of my current novel (because none of the versions, v0-v5, have been finished, I just keep starting over again), I lost two and a half chapters. The reason was stupid—I was trying to make storage space on my iPad for a show I was downloading, and mistakenly believed the best way to free up storage space was to delete my largest documents. I believed (incorrectly) that I had my novel entirely backed up to Google Docs, so I went and purposefully deleted it. When I went to find it in Google Docs, I realized I hadn’t backed up the last two and a half chapters. They no longer existed. It was a huge setback, I couldn’t get back into the rhythm of my story after that, and that’s what prompted versions 1-5. I got myself back into my novel by simply starting it all over again. That’s the only catastrophic loss I’ve had, but it was still horrifying—especially since I’d purposefully and knowingly deleted my novel! Here’s to having backups for backups for backups 🙂

  • I’ve meet this problem several times,thank you for your great advice.

  • When you buy an external drive for back up, get one that’s made to travel. Most aren’t and movement can damage them. This is especially handy if you have to get out fast in the event of a fire, hurricane, etc. Get enough storage space in this drive so that you can also back up your entire OS in the event that your home computer is destroyed.

    A USB stick or flash drive with your important data is small enough to be stored in your bank safety deposit box, and I’ve never had an issue with any kind of electronic damage from the safe. Some banks offer a free deposit box with account holders so you may not have to pay anything. If you do, you can take if off your taxes as a business expense.

    I have other emergency advice on my blog. It’s worth a trip and may save your rear beyond your writing.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2016/03/are-you-ready-for-writer-emergency.html

  • Carly says:

    I save my story on Google Docs so that doesn’t happen, but this is definitely helpful for those who might not have it.

  • Tom Gould says:

    I save up to six copies of it at least and nowadays keep a hard copy as well. Some people may argue that this is a little excessive, but at the end of the day would anyone want to waste time and energy recreating what they already had without getting annoyed.

    Check out my book ‘The Hartnetts’ at Amazon.com

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