Did You Save?


It’s a shiny new year, and we’re all busy trying to get ourselves into good habits. Some folks may have received new computers on which they are now typing that soon-to-be-award-winning manuscript. With that in mind, I wanted to mention that while everyone’s process is different, there is one hard and fast rule that every writer should follow when working on a computer. Back it up every time.

I know this seems obvious, but we forget. Maybe it’s late and we’re exhausted, so we shut down the word processor and stumble off to bed without thinking about it. Or we think we don’t need to back it up more than once a week/month/quarter. I learned the lesson the hard way. Long ago, I was preparing to attend a prestigious writer’s conference, at which I had the chance to meet privately with a very well-known and influential literary agent. I was beside myself with excitement. My manuscript was mere pages from completion, and by the time the agent saw my pages and decided he liked my book, I’d be able to send it to him. My dream was about to come true, I just knew it. I’d packed and repacked my suitcase, planning every thread of what I’d wear in order to make the best possible impression. I was barely sleeping from the excitement. And of course I’d tweaked the three chapters I’d chosen to share with him until they fairly gleamed, and I planned to print them out the day before we left, so they’d be crisp and clean.

On the Sunday evening prior to our leaving on Thursday, I was sitting in my living room, having just finished writing a ten page chapter (it had been a productive day!) Friends showed up at the door, so I decided to save my work and close down the laptop while we were visiting. I moved the cursor to the ‘save’ button, and clicked. And everything vanished.

I sat still, not sure what to do next, afraid to move for fear something worse might happen. Every other time I’d saved a document, it hadn’t disappeared. This couldn’t be a good thing, could it? I searched in my documents file, but the manuscript wasn’t there. Not only had the copy I was working on evaporated like fog in the sunshine, but the saved copy was gone. It was as if I’d never written a single word. My husband and my friends tried different methods to recover the document, but it was not to be found. “Did you save it onto a disc?” someone asked.

Suddenly I couldn’t remember the last time I’d saved onto the floppy (I told you this was a long time ago!) In a panic, I ransacked my desk to find it, shoved it into the drive and opened the document. I hadn’t saved in nearly a month. All the tweaking of the chapters, all the new work I’d completed….all gone.

That afternoon ranks up there with the top five worst days of my life, I think. I was happy, of course, that the majority of my story still existed somewhere, but it broke my heart to lose all the work I’d done. If you’ve ever had this happen, you probably know the feeling of that was the best writing I ever did, and now it’s gone!! You never want to feel that way, trust me. All these years later I still worry that the chapter I lost was pure magnificence, and might have made the difference between a sale and a rejection.

These days, of course, saving off-site is simple. Very few people use floppies, since very few computers have floppy drives. The popular choice is the flash drive, which can be carried in a pocket. If you don’t care for saving your work to an object, there are a couple of options. My favorite is saving my work in Gmail. When I’m finished for the night, I save the file, then send it to myself as an attachment. Gmail allows the user to create folders, so I have one named ‘Work’ that holds all the manuscripts. As long as I have access to my Gmail, I can find my work. It’s been a lifesaver more than once. I was at work one day when my agent emailed – she needed me to send the most recent rewrite to her immediately. In the past I would have had to wait until I got home from work to accomodate her, and that might have been too late. Because I had everything saved in Gmail, I was able to pull it up and send it within minutes.

Another useful tool I’ve discovered is Writeboard. Originally designed for corporate documents, Writeboard is a great way to save documents online. The advantage to this is the ability to edit and write on the document without opening it in a word processor. This allows me to *drops voice to a whisper* write while I’m at work.

The point is, your words are valuable. You don’t want to lose them unless you’re doing the deleting yourself. So while you’re doing your research and planning, while you’re figuring out what drives your characters, get into the habit of backing up every time. You might be glad of it someday.


17 comments to Did You Save?

  • Oh, Darlin. I remember that. And I remember the time I did the same thing, and lost large portions of a manuscript. Now I backup every single day to a flash drive. When I finish a book, I burn it to a disc. But I like the idea of sending my book to myself, because what if my house is robbed and the bad-guy takes the aging PC and my pocketbook? Hey — It could happen…

  • I’ve files corrupted before when I was working on papers for my master’s degree. Let me tell you–that was an *censored* mess to recover and attempt to fix. I know it wasn’t all that led to that degree not happening… but after having it happen twice in the same semester (and never since–which is odd) I have learned. I’m not banking on that *well-behaved* pattern being consistent.

    I was wondering if professionals subscribed to things like Mobbi (or whatever that “automatically back up everything for $10/mo) type program or not 🙂

  • I’ve had this too and Misty’s story gives me chills. Lately, however, I’ve run into a new problem which, paradoxically, comes from constantly backing up my writing: the accidental reversion to an older version of the manuscript. I’ve done this several times, usually when I’m moving work between computers, editing what I think is the latest version only to realize that its out of date. It’s maddening because unless the new material was created out of nothing (brand new pages, say) it’s incredibly hard to separate out the new edits from what existed before, so you can’t simply transfer the new stuff to the better file. You can lose hours, even days, of work this way. Some possible solutions I’ve tried to implement:
    1. Save your work constantly (in case the machine crashes on you)
    2. Always check the date and time of the draft before you start to apply changes or new material. You might even keep a log so you can cross check to ensure this version is the one you need to be editing.
    3. If you do lose material, force yourself–and this is hard when you are really upset about what happened–to rewrite everything you have lost immediately as fast as you can. It’s amazing how quickly you can put it all back (and improve on it) if you act before you forget what you did.

    My two cents.

  • AJ — I had the same problem, so I simply started putting a version number in the file name. Such as, “New Novel 1” then the next time I saved, “New Novel 2”, etc. It’s simple, but very effective. I can tell by simply looking at the file names which one is the one I need to be revising. But I know some people love their spreadsheets, so if keeping a log works for you, go for it!

  • I haven’t had something like this happen recently, but a few years ago, the hard-drive in my computer went crazy, and for several months, I couldn’t get any of my files to work. It was terrifying. Now, that situation resolved well, but it was still a frightening experience. I got gmail so I could save everything to google docs after that, but I’ve let myself slip, and haven’t used it regularly for awhile. 🙁

  • I save everyday to my flash drive, and every few days I also save it to my other computer and am external hard drive. I do similar things with the RAW images from my camera. I have lost material too many times. None of what I do is perfectly safe — I’m not sure any solution is. But I’m figuring that the chances of my desktop’s hard drive AND my laptop’s hard drive AND my external hard drives AND my flash drive all failing on the same day are reasonably slim….

  • I recently saved everything from my flash drive (a crazy amount of material) to my laptop because our daughter bumped it while it was in the laptop and bent it. I nearly swallowed my tongue. Luckily it was fine, but I had this sudden image of years of writing going down the drain with a broken flash drive. I have copies of my work on my laptop, my PC, a flash drive and on a zip disc. Periodically I’ll update it all.

    Yeah, I’ve had the power go out while I was working on something and I hadn’t backed it up. It’s happened more than once. It feels something like watching all your loved ones getting sucked into a black hole and you’re next and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    I like the newer incarnations of Word because they’ll pull up a recovered file from when the PC shut down suddenly. It may not always be everything, but it’s more than I would’ve had due to not having saved it.

  • Stuart, AJ, Arrrg. I hate it when that happens! I too use the BookVersion1, BookVersion2 method, but I added a secondary file named Old Versions for each book. [OldVersions-SK would be for old Skinwalkers, OldVersions-BC is old versions Blood Cross.] When I name a new version, old versions are transfered to the old versions file that very day of creation. I no longer mix them up.

  • I make backups all over the place, but recently I started using something called Dropbox. They have free and paid versions. I believe the free version gives 2gigabytes of storage.

    What is great about Dropbox is that I have it installed on multiple computers. Every time I make a change to a document I have in my “dropbox” it automatically saves it to the storage space on the internet, and when I go to another computer I’ve designated for use with dropbox, it updates that computer’s files to the newest version.

    It’s a free download at dropbox.com I believe. I first heard about it while listening to Mary Robinette Kowal on a podcast.


  • A timely and useful post. I touched on similar themes myself a while back here. I’d advise two levels of backup – one local for ease of access and one remote (on the internet probably) for complete security.

  • D. Jarboe

    I recommend Skydrive. It’s Microsoft’s remote storage offering and it allows you to store as much as 25 GB. I like it better than email (especially email with Google), because email never feels very safe, especially with phishing schemes and attempted hackings and all that. Call me paranoid, but I really don’t feel like sensitive information (such as one’s entire manuscript) is safe with Google, since they datamine all information that stored with them, even personal information about you. They also keep the information indefinitely, even if you have, say, deleted it from your inbox.
    I’m no CS gal, but all of my software engineering friends have told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should avoid using a Google product to store important information (and no, they don’t all work for companies that compete directly with Google).


    Okay, I’m really not paranoid, I swear 🙂 Skydrive is nice because it allows you to choose how private a given document is. For instance, I store my manuscript on Skydrive, and that is obviously a private document. But after I had a baby, we posted a picture slideshow online and just emailed the link to our friends and family. I also like Skydrive’s drag and drop feature, and if you already have a Windows Live ID, your username and password are the same. All in all, it’s a pretty nice service, and it allows a *lot* of storage for free.

  • Tom Gallier

    Thanks, D. Jarboe. I do have a Live account, and wasn’t aware that I had Skydrive. It looks great. Another place to save my files (Beside the Desktop, Laptop, two USB Drives and occasional e-mail to myself.)

    Unfortunately, even though I’ve lost material before (including this last summer when my desktop crashed) I don’t save nearly enough.

  • Thankfully I’ve never lost manuscript work, but I lost pretty near all my high school creative writing (and it actually wasn’t full of angst!) with a dead hard drive and nearly lost everything again with a suicidal motherboard. Currently I use Mozy, which I love because it backs everything up to remote location, not something in my house that might also burn to a crisp along with my laptop should said house erupt in flames. Plus it does it every 12 hours automatically, and also backs up all my photos, etc, so it gives me way more piece of mind than I used to have. Mozy is also free for up to 5gb of backup, so it’s not a ridiculous option.

    I really agree with what people are saying about draft versions as well. It’s valuable to keep old versions both for comparison and in case some gem of a line I cut in revisions suddenly has purpose again. I try to take the same approach as Faith, keeping one current version and then moving previous versions to an Old Drafts file. I should probably be better about making new versions rather than over hacking and tweaking in the existing document, but at least some of it’s being saved.

    As David says though, something could go wrong on all ends (Apocalypse, anyone?), but it’s a good start.

  • I recently went through this when my flash drive suddenly decided to stop working. Luckily I have been backing up copies of everything to my PC.

    Hey Misty, have you tried Google Documents? You can store documents online as well as edit them using their online editor from any computer. Their editor is pretty good and even has a Wordcount feature. You can also share the documents with other Google users (an agent say) or keep it private. I find it pretty handy.

  • Thankfully I’ve lost nothing important yet, in part because long ago I heard to save frequently. I backup to a flash drive (almost) daily and burn a copy of My Documents to CD (almost) weekly. I also burn an additional copy after every major draft. Consistency is my biggest problem.

    My writing program, yWriter, saves each scene to .rtf, and autosaves every 15 minutes any scene that’s been opened in the text editor. It also autosaves whenever I exit the text editor, the program creates a new version of the .rtf file in the autobackup folder. It also saves the entire project daily to a single file. I find these autobackups work great for when I accidentally delete a paragraph or decide I like a previous version of revisions. It’s a quick an easy way to go back in time and recover text. (There are other great features, but not applicable at this time.)

  • Robin

    Misty–I read most of your post through spread fingers. Too painful! I don’t back-up nearly enough, and trust fate waaaay too much. I shall repent. My antivirus software keeps bugging me about this mysterious backup thing I paid for but never used…. 🙂

  • Ken

    All of this is good advice. Allow me to inject a little paranoia and suggest that you *always* have 2 copies of whatever it is you’re working on. I had a backup drive (it was an actual hard drive..not a flash drive) that I saved everything to…one day, the drive failed…actually the controller card on the drive failed (in non computer speak…the data was still there…I just couldn’t access it). This was worse than having something fail utterly in that I know I haven’t “lost” anything. I still have the failed drive on a bookshelf in my office…my old WIP is still there and if I ever decide I’ve got enough free cash for a data recovery service I might just go that route but, right now, its serving a much more valuable purpose. If its important enough to back up, its important enough to back up in at least one other location. Myself, I now have 2 backup drives and I back up my back up drive regularly.

    Remember, there are really only two types of people: Those that have lost data and those that haven’t lost data…yet.