Writing: Surrounded by Alligators, Protecting Your Work

The computer universe will eat your work if you don't protect it.

Writing: Surrounded by Alligators, Protecting Your Work

All writers have their “process”. Whatever that entails, the final product usually ends up in a computer. If you are not using a word processor for edits, you are wasting productivity on a large scale. True aspirations of publishing nowadays invariably involve a computer, word processing software, and some kind of digital document. Microsoft Word (PC or Mac) is widely used, but there are many free alternatives that include but are not limited to: Google Docs, LibreOffice, Kingsoft Office Suite Free, Open Office, and Office Web App.

Regardless of what software floats your boat, your material should end up in files saved to some storage medium. If this seems like a very basic and generic presentation, I’m just trying not to scare the technophobes. Where am I going with this? Picture it, “Oh damn, the *cursing* computer ate my chapter!” Has this ever happened to you? No? Yes?

These stories always make me cringe. I work on, with, and consult about computers. I have seen many nightmares. So, let me help you avoid disasters. 


Ever think of email as a back-up medium? Guess what, for small stuff it’s great. Email yourself a copy. Most services like Gmail give you 15 gigabytes or more of storage. It’s a great place to save interim and final document versions. If you are not confident with email… this is knowledge you should invest in.

Flash drives

Do you own a flash drive? No? Purchase at least one. At this writing, a 2 gigabyte (2000 megabytes) drive can be purchased for as little as $3. (Heck, they are often free promotional items). So, you can afford one. You spend more than that to drive to the meeting. So there’s no excuse for not owning a couple. If you’re not a cheapskate, splurge for a little more capacity and durability. In all truth, you would have to be monstrously prolific to need more than 2 GB if you’re only storing your writing. Don’t know where to get a flash drive (or have some other conundrum), see the technical support section below. The flash drive should serve as your offline storage. This is your backup if a meteor hits your computer or the far more mundane and annoyingly common computer virus trashes your machine. You should routinely back up your writing folders to the flash drive every time you make any time-consuming changes to your documents. If you don’t know how, then do yourself a huge favor and learn. If you are paranoid (I am), make copies to two flash drives. This is because flash drives while relatively reliable can just up and die, taking their entire contents to unrecoverable cybernetic heaven.

Flash drives also have the added utility of being able to bring around a copy of your document(s).

CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays

If you are technically savvy, writing your stuff to optical disks is safer, but more expensive. If your paranoia runs a little deeper (depending on how much work you have to protect), semi-permanent archives of your material certainly aren’t a bad thing. The problem is this process is slow. It’s more work than most folks will invest. That’s why a preference for the cheap (and re-writable) flash drives.

Online (the cloud)

If you’re not techno-phobic or techno-challenged, online services like Google Docs can serve as great archival mediums. You can upload your documents and get the additional utility of being able to access them from anywhere you have an internet connection. For myself, I use a combination of cloud storage, flash drives, and entire redundant computers for my backups. Okay, I’m really paranoid.

Process security

Backups can save you, but bad organization can end up trashing your primary copy and all your backups.

Rule #1: Segment your documents

Never ever maintain a novel length work in a single document. Documents can get corrupted (more often in big documents). Documents can get messed up in non-obvious ways when they are large: copy and paste gone wrong, global find and replace, all manner of terrible calamities. The worst part is you may not know your work is damaged. The document opens fine… but your attention is on the end… somewhere else you’ve blown a giant hole in your foot. Worse, since you don’t know something is wrong… you studiously copy that document to your back-ups. That is a giant hair-pulling disaster.

Keep each chapter segment in a separate numbered document (Example: booktitle001.doc). Note: Zero pad the chapter number, this helps with sorting and organizing. When you get to your final draft, then assemble all the chapters into a single monolithic document. If you end up (and writers often do) swapping chapters around, you will be grateful you kept them in separate files. The monolithic document serves a few basic needs (like submission) but is needed for things like global search and replace and consistency checking.

Once assembled into a giant file, your novel work is very vulnerable. Once you are confident the assembled work is complete and ship shape, immediately save a copy to a baseline version file (Example: booktitle_rough.doc) then save another copy to a working document (Example: booktitle_work.doc). Always work on the work file. Each session, work on the latest document and save to a NEW file (Example: booktitle_work_20150515.doc). Note: If you use the date formatted like this, the documents will sort chronologically. As you do your final edits you will leave a trail of bread crumbs. If at any point calamity strikes… you have the previous edit file. Nowadays, disks are measured in terabytes (1000s of gigabytes). If this seems wasteful of disk space, don’t worry. The size of even a large book will only be a few megabytes. A small hard disk nowadays is 500 gigabytes (half a million megabytes). When you have a document that is THE one for submission, save THREE copies. (Example: booktitle_final_submit.doc , booktitle_final_revs.doc, booktitle_final_revs_work.doc).

As before, always use the WORK document for doing edits. When you are confident that modifications to the document haven’t caused something bad, save a copy to the revs file. Never touch the submit file. If you feel compelled to make changes, save to a copy and work on that. Never mess with your baseline version after you’re confident it’s your submission copy. Trust me, you will PRAISE all this paranoia the day it saves your tail from some unintended consequence.

Rule #2: Don't mix your projects

For purposes of back-ups and organization, create a single top-level folder for all your writing. Do NOT place your project documents in that root, have a separate folder for each large project or each document classification. There are technical reasons for this, but that goes beyond this discussion. Suffice to say it’s just a good idea.


  • Writing Root +
    • -Project 1
    • -Project 2
    • -Stories
    • -Submissions
    • -Queries
    • -Research

If your folders are organized like this, it’s a simple matter to drag your “Writing Root” to a flash drive or back-up media. If you are submitting to publishers and there are changes, extend Rule #1 to folders.


  • Writing Root +
    • – Project 1 +
      • -2008_Submit
      • -2009_ReSubmit
      • -2010_3rdPrinting

Again, paranoia is your friend!

Rule #3: Save now, save later, save like crazy!

Non-savers remorse is irritating. (If you had just saved before the cat ran across the keyboard, you wouldn’t be spending the next three days recomposing from memory). Even if you are working on something short (a story or chapter) start by making a _work copy of the document. Make all of your changes to that. When you are closing up for the day, verify you haven’t screwed anything up, and then save back to the original.

I am stupid paranoid, I work in the cloud on a Google Doc version of my file and then save down to disk when I’m confident it’s a legit copy. You don’t have to be as crazy as me, but caution will pay off eventually.

The next level of paranoia is face roll protection. (Face roll is an inclusive term that includes such situations as you falling asleep and planting your features in the keyboard, temporary stupidity, clumsiness, cats, dogs, small children and significant others). Do you know the save shortcut for the word processor you’re working in? In Microsoft Word and many others it is CTRL+S. If you don’t know, find out. I don’t know of any modern software out there that does not have an easily typed save key combo. Memorize it and USE it. I hit this key combo at the end of every sentence. When my wife wants my attention, I hit it. When anything starts to distract me, I hit it. I hit it, hit it, hit it. Whack a mole, baby, every completed thought, save that sucker! Save paranoia is a behavioral modification that will preserve your sanity. Develop it. You’ll thank yourself later.

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