Tuesday 22 April 2014

Backing up for Improved Wordy Prowess

There is this terrifying thing that happens sometimes, and it is the kind of thing that can rock you right to wherever it is inside you that your words are made. I don't know why I don't just say what it is straight up. You've seen the title, so you must know where I am going with this.

Losing all, most, some, or even only small amounts of your writing can be devastating. I have had all of these happen. Well, I thought I lost everything once, but I had a bunch of bits and pieces here and there on Zip disks, and as e-mail attachments, and what have you, but it took a very long time to get a lot of it back together, and I lost versions of things I have never since been able to replicate. I also lost all known versions of some stories, including what was at that stage the longest and most complete thing that I had ever written.

The process of recovering from this is horrible. You aren't quite sure where to start. Do you just start pouring out everything that you can remember? Where do you start with that? Losing a few small stories is not a good feeling, but losing dozens of stories, some of which are tens of thousands of words, is sickening.

There are a number of reasons that things like this can happen, but the most frustrating is when whatever method(s) of backup you have decided to go with are the failing point. No one method is infallible. External hard drives will just die one day, online services may change their policies on you, and all recordable media will eventually corrupt. Any of these can turn into an expensive and/or futile retrieval operation.

We need to protect our words. We need to make sure that they are going to be safe. we need to make sure that they will always be there for us when we need them. That is why I am talking about this now, instead of talking about it after the cool software that exists. This is way more important, and has very little to do with writing, and more to do with protecting your writing.

Ideally you want everything backed up both locally, on an external hard drive, flash drive, or other external media, and in the cloud in one of those cloud services. I live out of my Google Drive, because it is big enough and it is free. It was there for me when I was ridiculously broke, and so I'm invested now. There is a relationship with Google Drive that makes me feel that my things are at their safest when they're with the 'G'. The other major player is Dropbox, which plugs into everything these days, which is great. This compatibility is very important for a lot of things, but there are always going to be some file syncing issues no matter which services you try to use, so it is good to try and be aware of them.

I would steer clear of SkyDrive, only because they once changed their policy on me and I lost access to all of the things that lived there. I had quite coincidentally backed it up a few days before losing access, but I still maintain that there was a poor effort made to notify me of these changes and what they meant for me and my words. Will they change it again? I don't know, but I am not particularly interested in finding out.

A friend of mine makes use of a number of these services, because 'they're all idiots', which isn't a totally bad idea. It is actually a pretty good idea, and while making sure they are all up to date can be a bit of a chore, it is worth the time for the piece of mind. A few years ago I experimented with having them all overlapping, because I was curious to see how it be handled. It turns out that it causes some file duplication issues, as well as some syncing problems if you have more than one of them installed on a machine. If you're super keen to do this, I suggest putting the others inside your Google Drive, and only installing your Google Drive on all of your machines. You will still sometimes have issues, but...

Actually, don't. It is a pain. When things go wrong, I seemed to be always finding out when it was inconvenient to actually resolve the issue. Unless you are on top of this kind of stuff and you manage all your own IT toys, this has the potential to really annoy you. Keep them separate. I got into this a couple of years ago now, and I could imagine them being able to fix this, and having it not be an issue anymore, but I can also imagine them not prioritising it, because making sure their products play nice with their competitors' products so that you can pay them all zero of your money is not the kind of thing that they are likely to make time for.

When you are signing up for any service, whether it be for backing up, online tools, software support, hardware support, or anything else you don't ever want to lose access to, it is important to use an e-mail address that you 'should' never lose access to. Do not use work/school/university/group/organisation/friend's/partner's/family's/shared/ISP e-mails. This has often struck most people as the kind of thing that falls well inside common sense when I tell them this, but most of the smartest people I know have done this at some stage in their life. Even an e-mail that you have been promised 'for life' is not guaranteed, as these promises do not usually reflect the actual contracts, service agreements, or policies involved in their delivery. I should also point out that I have told people this, then had them give me a hard time for patronising them, and then had them do this very exact thing less than an hour later. If keeping access to an e-mail address is reliant on you maintaining your involvement in a workplace, organisation, or relationship, DO NOT USE IT TO SIGN UP FOR THINGS!

The safest thing to do is use a Gmail or Live/Hotmail e-mail address in your own name. Other similar services, like Yahoo, are fine too. This is one of those things that you should probably adopt outside of your writing life too. This is fairly solid advice. The likelihood that you will be able to maintain your non-fee-paying relationship with an organisation like Google is far more reliable than the likelihood that you will always be with Optus/Telstra/<current employer>. In the situation in which an employer has provided you with a Gmail account (yes, this is a thing), get your own.

While we're on the topic, if you feel like you need to chime in about the unreliability of modern technology and you keep everything in hard copy, then you are going to get burnt one day. No pun intended, but it was definitely appreciated. I used to do a lot of writing on a type writer, because I like the noise it makes, and even though I never got literally burnt, my writing got wet, and I lost a huge amount of work. I was young, and the whole process was an indulgence that ended in a hard-learnt lesson.

No matter what process you use, things can go wrong, and you will never stop feeling amazing when a computer dies, or a backup fails, and you can get everything you have ever written onto wherever it is you are writing on now with a minimum of fuss. The feeling you will get whenever you watch those file transfer bars creep across the screen of a clean computer will never stop being one of the best parts of your year, and in my experience, will only get better and better as that folder increases in girth.

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