Don’t let disaster set you back: backup!

by Nancy Butts

Two years ago, I was torn from sleep at 1 am by the blare of tornado sirens. My husband and I switched on the television, where the weatherman was screaming that people in the town where we lived had sixty seconds to take shelter before a killer cyclone struck. Dragging our dog by the collar, we dove into a closet—but not before I dashed to my desk and grabbed my laptop computer. Losing an entire career’s worth of writing scared me as much as losing my home. In a very real sense, losing all that work would be like losing my life.


That kind of literary disaster doesn’t have to happen to you. In the digital age, it is easy to keep backup copies of everything you write and thus avoid the nightmare of seeing your life’s work disappear. In this article I outline a simple and free plan you can put in place to safeguard your precious writing.

The twister missed our house by 800 yards, but it wasn’t the first time that I had worried about the safety of my data. When I was a newspaper reporter, I’d lost hours of work when hard drives went bad or the power flickered. And I’d read about the experiences of writers like T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He lost his only copy of his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in a railroad station while traveling and had to start from scratch. He didn’t just lose a few hours of work; he lost years.

Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, lost his only two copies of a book in progress when a lamp exploded and burned them both to ash. In a letter afterwards, Conrad wrote, “This morning looking at the pile of charred paper – MS and typed copy – my head swam; it seemed to me the earth was turning backwards.”

With a little forethought, you can make sure that something like this never happens to you. Here is a two-pronged plan that is easy—and cheap.

For absolute safety, you need to keep not just one but two backups of every story, article, or book you write. One of these copies can be stored locally, in your home. But the other copy needs to be off-site, somewhere outside your home. Why? Because if the worst happens and your house is subjected to fire, flood, storm, or alien invasion, having a local backup copy of your work won’t be enough.

Ask British writer Francis Wheen. He did have a backup copy of the historical novel on which he was working. That’s the good news. The bad news is that both his printed backup and the computer in which the working manuscript was stored in the same place, a writing shed in his back yard. When fire destroyed the shed, both the original draft and the backup were lost. That’s why you need to store a duplicate backup somewhere outside your home.

But first let’s talk about how to make a local backup copy. You need to decide what kind of backup medium you want to use. You have several choices, but I recommend USB flash drives. All computers can read them, and these little thumb drives are cheap.

I’m a teensy bit obsessive, so my backup plan is more involved than this. Because my work depends on it, I can’t afford to be without a computer for even an afternoon. So I have two computers. I’ve set them up so that the hard drives on each computer are exact clones of each other.

Since I have the kind of morbidly over-active imagination that envisions the worst, even this isn’t enough for me. I also have a a dedicated external drive for each computer, and a collection of USB flash drives on top of that. What can I say? I don’t want to end up like T.E. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, or poor Francis Wheen, so I keep a lot of backups. My husband calls this my “neurotic need for redundancy.” I call it being smart.

Note that you don’t need any special backup software. All you have to do is save your story twice from within your word processing application. Save the first copy to your computer’s main hard drive, and the second to your flash drive. You can even manually copy the file by simply dragging and dropping the file icon from your computer to your backup medium.

Remember though, your job isn’t done yet. Now you have one backup copy of your story, but you need a second one, and it needs to be stored off-site.


This is easier than it used to be. In the past few years, many online services have sprung up that will backup your entire computer hard drive for an annual fee. But you don’t need to pay for this service.  If all you are worried about backing up is your writing files, you can do this for free. You could simply get a second flash drive, for example, put your backups on it, and then give the flash drive to a friend or family member. You could even store it in a desk at work.

You could also make arrangements with a writer friend to email them copies of your work so they could store it for you. In return, you could do the same for them. Or you can email yourself a copy if you use a web-based email provider like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or iCloud mail. That way you’ll have a permanent online archive of your work.

Or you could use one of several free cloud-based storage services. Storing something “in the cloud” simply means that you are sending your writing files to the Internet for safekeeping with a service like Dropbox, Evernote, GoogleDrive, or iCloud.

I use Dropbox. As I said, it’s free. I don’t even have to remember to make backups of my work. Dropbox does it for me automatically every few minutes as I write, as long as I’m connected to the Internet.

Dropbox also does something else automatically and invisibly: it keeps a running history of a document while you are working on it. Versioning—or snapshots of a document that preserve how it looks at all stages of the writing process—is different than the static final backups we’ve been talking about up to now.  If it’s important to you to be able to go back and retrieve an earlier version of a document you’re writing, before you made changes to it, you need to investigate word processing applications that have this versioning feature. Microsoft Word does, for example. Time Machine on Mac computers has this feature as well.

But Dropbox will do this for you automatically, no matter what computer platform or what word processing program you use. That’s what made Dropbox attractive to me.

For those of you who still prefer to write on paper, whether that is longhand or with a typewriter, there are solutions for you, too. Make a photocopy of your handwritten or typed manuscript, then store it in a waterproof, fireproof box.

If you’ve been keeping count, you realize that I have a minimum of five backups of every manuscript I write: one on a second computer, one on an external drive connected to my first computer and another on the external drive connected to the backup computer, one to a USB flash drive, and one to Dropbox. Some files are on my iPhone and iPad as well.

I guess to someone other than a writer, that many backups might seem neurotically obsessive. But for all of us who pour our hearts and souls into our stories, it seems like the wise thing to do.

 [© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]


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