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Back It Up, Back It Up, Back It Up!

Everyone, no matter their occupation, needs to back up their computer. Writers are no different. We spend tons of time crafting lengthy pieces, putting together research notes, and saving things like pictures, scans, contracts, and other information that we need for our work. I know that the advice to back up gets repeated over and over, but there’s a reason for that. People still don’t do it and they still have horror stories of lost work that could easily have been prevented.

It’s too risky to live without a backup. Hard drives are fallible. They are just another mechanical item and will fail with age just like any other mechanical item. Humans are fallible, too. We drop our computers, spill things on them, and accidentally erase files. You know you need to do it, and you may even mean to get around to it. But you put it off and disaster strikes. Your novel is gone, or that article that was due tomorrow is gone. At that point, your only option is to pay a data recovery service to try and recover as much as they can, which may not be everything.

There’s no excuse for not having backups of your work. There are more backup options than ever available today and most aren’t that expensive. Some are even free. And most are fairly intuitive, or come with excellent instructions, so they don’t require huge amounts of technical savvy to operate. Which option you choose will depend on how easy it is to recover/replace some of your data, your budget, and your risk tolerance. Here are your options for backing up your data.

  1. External hard drive and backup software. This is the most expensive option, but it’s also the most comprehensive. Both Macs and PC’s come with backup software built in, so all you need to buy is the hard drive, which can often be found for $100 – $200, depending on the size you need. If you don’t like the option provided by your computer, there is third party backup software that you can buy. Whichever you choose, this option often backs up your entire hard drive, including the operating system and applications. In the event of a failure, you simply restore your computer using the backup and you’re off and running again in a few hours. You can set the backup to happen at any interval you choose and you can include or exclude certain files if you don’t need backups of them.
  2. External hard drive without the software. You can just copy the files/directories that you want to back up onto the drive. This won’t give you a full backup of your operating system and all of your applications, but your files are at least safe.
  3. USB drives. These are best for small, individual files as most don’t have the capacity to back up entire photo libraries or lots of files. However, they can be good for backing up files when you’re working on the road and you don’t have access to a full hard drive, or you just need to do a quick, temporary back up of a file you’re working on.
  4. Cloud file storage. There are many options for cloud storage. Many offer a small amount of storage for free with the option to purchase more. Google, Dropbox, Microsoft and others provide this service. Look around and find the one that suits you best. (Just be aware that any online service is never truly secure. Hacking is always a possibility, so you may not want to trust sensitive information to a service that you do not control.) These services won’t back up your entire hard drive, but they are good for putting a few files out of harm’s way.
  5. Cloud hard drive backups. There are services, such as Carbonite, that are capable of backing up your entire hard drive. These can be pricey and require a fast internet connection for them to be efficient, but they are an alternative to an external hard drive and backup software. Their advantage is that the provider takes care of making redundant copies. It’s up to them to back up your backup, whereas with an external hard drive, you really need to make an additional copy in case that backup drive fails. (See below for a brief discussion of redundancy.)
  6. Email it to yourself. If you don’t have a USB drive handy, you can attach your file to an email and send it to yourself. It will reside on your email provider’s server until you delete it.

Note that you do not have a backup until the data exists in at least two different places. If you move files off your computer onto a hard drive or jump drive for sharing or to make more space on your primary drive, you don’t have a backup. Those files still exist only in one place. You have to copy them onto the other media for it to be considered a safe backup.

Be Redundant

Writers are often told to avoid redundancy. However, this does not apply to your backups. When backing up, redundancy (defined as keeping multiple copies of your backup in multiple places) is your friend. So, for example, if you’re using an external hard drive and keeping that in your house, you will want to keep another copy of your data either in the cloud or on a drive that you store in your safe deposit box or in a desk drawer at work. This will ensure that if your first option is damaged, lost, or stops working, you’ll still have access to another copy.

Your spare copy doesn’t have to be another full hard drive backup, although that is ideal. Your second copy could just be your most important files and directories. I know someone who had her computer hard drive fail and when she went to use the backup drive, discovered that had failed, as well. Another lost both her computer and the backup drive in a fire. While rare, such disasters are possible so use multiple backups and keep them in different places.


Redundancy can lead to backups that are months apart from each other. You want to keep your multiple backups within one version of each other. So, for example, if you backed up using the drive in your house this week, the copy that’s at work, at a friend’s house, or in the safe deposit box should be no more than one backup prior. If you can keep them equal that’s even better, but at least with only one version difference you won’t lose that much if total disaster strikes. What you want to avoid is a scenario where the version in your house is being updated every week while the version you keep offsite is only updated twice a year. That will cost you a lot of work if the copy at home is lost at the same time as your main computer fails.

Think about how much of your life and work is on your computer. Would you be able to function if it were lost or destroyed? If the answer is no, you need to back up your work. I know you think it won’t happen to you, or that you’ll get some kind of warning before it happens, but neither is true. If you use a computer long enough, something catastrophic will happen to you. And there may be no warning. It’s entirely possible that you shut down your computer one night and everything is fine, but when you go to boot up the next day, nothing happens. Lost data is preventable. Take the necessary steps to deal with your data and spare yourself the pain of lost work.


(Photo courtesy of Mike73)

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