I will always remember one scene in Wonder Boys, even though the rest of the plot has become hazy for me over the years. In this scene, a tortured writer (played by Michael Douglas) watches as the hand-typed pages of his manuscript blow away. All twelve thousand of them. With no backup. The thought is enough to send chills down my spine.
Just a plot device, I hear you say. It wouldn’t happen in the age of computers. Oh really?
What’s your backup plan?
Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “but Word saves automatically, doesn’t it?” Others, “what’s a backup plan?” But there are some of you who know exactly what I’m talking about. The ones who’ve lost data.
I was busy in the lab one day writing my Honours thesis when the fire alarm went off. I assumed it was a drill. I kept on writing. That is, until the fire warden found me. He said the lab next door was on fire and told me to get the hell outside with everybody else.
I stared at him, then at the ageing Apple Macintosh computer with all of my precious words painstakingly hammered into place with two fingers. (This was before I could touch-type.) Then I looked at the jars of extremely flammable fixative and solvents and God-only-knows-what-else lining the shelves. (This was also before occupational health and safety was given much credence.)
“There are some of you who know exactly what I’m talking about. The ones who’ve lost data.”
I can tell you one thing—Word’s auto-save feature didn’t give me much comfort on that day. I fought off the fire warden long enough to unplug the computer from the wall and disentangle it from various peripherals. Then I carried the damned thing downstairs in my arms.
That was when I started backing up my work religiously.
I developed an intricate system when I was working on my PhD thesis. It involved saving each chapter on its own floppy disk at the end of the day. I actually made two copies, and took one set of floppies home in a box so that when the lab inevitably exploded I wouldn’t lose everything.
Some of you are no doubt smiling at the memory of little boxes of floppies we all used to carry around. For the rest of you, floppy disks are what we had before we burned things to CD or DVD or USB drives. You know that icon you hit to save your work? The square one?
That’s a floppy disk.
Today my backup schedule is a little different. For one thing, disk space is ridiculously cheap. Backing up no longer means saving each chapter to a different disk. But the biggest difference comes from the ingenious backup features built into Scrivener.
Every time I close a project, Scrivener zips the whole thing up and saves it in a designated place. The Preferences pane gives a range of options for this kind of regular backup, including how many backups to keep (in my case, the ten most recent) and where to save the backups.
But Scrivener also supports a version of off-site backups, which means that if my laptop suffers a calamity—possibly involving coffee, given my writing habits—I have a zipped copy of my work to restore onto whatever replaces my trusty MacBook Air. Once a day I go to the File menu and choose Back Up > Back Up To.
This menu option lets me choose an external drive as the target for my backup instead of the folder on my laptop used by the automatic backups. I have a shared network drive at home.
You can also use something like Dropbox that hosts your files in the cloud somewhere. (Just be careful to read the terms and conditions of online file storage services—some include the right to copy and even sell your documents.)
You might think this has my backup issue sorted. But wait! There’s more! Scrivener has another feature for managing versions of documents that would have saved me a near-meltdown when I was writing my PhD thesis.
I was almost done. I had seven chapters in various stages of completion, along with oodles of figures, graphs, tables, and what-not, all sitting in carefully-labelled folders on my desktop. This was a marginally newer Mac than the one I’d used for my Honours thesis, but still had a greyscale monitor. One evening I glanced down and saw only six carefully-labelled folders on the desktop. As I watched in stomach-churning horror, six folders became five, then four, then three.
My thesis was vanishing before my eyes. Hysteria doesn’t even begin to describe it. Those who’ve never written a large thesis may have a hard time understanding what a mind-altering experience it can be. If a meteor had collided with the Earth at that moment and triggered the next mass extinction, it would have come a distant second on my list of crappy things to go wrong on that particular day. I still have nightmares about those files winking out of existence on my computer screen as I watched, powerless to stop them.
Wait, I hear you say. Didn’t you have that natty backup plan?
“My thesis was vanishing before my eyes. Hysteria doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
Yes. Yes, I did. I had backed up all of those folders onto an assortment of floppy disks the night before. But I’d done at least twelve hours of edits since then, based on feedback from my supervisor and others who were graciously (they might say foolishly) reading chapters for me.
I looked at the blank desktop and then at the stack of floppies waiting to be over-written with the next backup.
Oh. My. God.
How would I know what had changed? How was I ever going to be able to re-create the hundreds of tiny but earth-shatteringly crucial edits I’d slaved over all day? (Did I mention the hysteria and altered state of consciousness?)
I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Mark Elgar, at the other end of the building, who had a copy of Norton Utilities. With his help I was able to recover my work and didn’t have to locate and re-type all of those changes. Or, failing that, somehow find a meteor and make it crash into the Earth.
Today I would face this situation with considerably more aplomb, thanks to Scrivener’s snapshots feature. Snapshots allow you to capture a version of a document (or collection of documents) at a particular moment. I use them in addition to the automated and off-site backups in my file-safety regimen.
Taking a snapshot is simple. You can use the keyboard shortcut or go to Documents > Snapshots > Take Snapshot. I prefer to give my snapshots a meaningful title (Documents > Snapshots > Take Snapshot With Title).
This lets me save a snapshot of the document and actually remember what I was doing at the time. For instance, if I’m about to use Scrivener’s text-to-speech feature to improve the flow of my prose, I might want to take a snapshot beforehand.
Then, after I’ve listened to Alex read my document back to me, and tweaked the prose, I may take another snapshot.
So what makes this different to the Back Up feature? The beauty of snapshots is that you can compare snapshots of a document and see what changed between the two. If I want to see what edits I made after listening to my text being read back to me, I can select two snapshots and hit Compare. Any additions or deletions are highlighted, making the changes obvious.
Some of you might be thinking this looks a lot like Track Changes in Word, and you’d be right. But it only looks like Track Changes. It’s much, much better.
First, you only have to look at the changes when you want to. I hate trying to write on a page covered with strike-through and underline and bits of different-coloured text. (I know you can turn this off in Word, but it’s ridiculous that you have to take this extra step just to make your words legible.)
Second, you don’t have to Accept Changes one at a time to incorporate them into the final version of the document. The markup only exists as a comparison between two snapshots—not as a property of an individual document.
Third, you can choose which snapshots you want to compare. In Word, once you accept the changes they vanish. With snapshots in Scrivener, you can compare the first snapshot to the hundred-and-first if you want.
Fourth, in Word there doesn’t seem to be any way to link a particular change to a meaningful event. You know who made the change, and when. But why? What prompted the change? With named snapshots (and a bit of discipline) you can see why the change was made.
My backup strategy has changed over the years. When I adopted Scrivener for all of my writing it took a giant leap forward. If this post has made you think twice about the way you backup your own work, then it was worth the time it has taken me to write. I’m not kidding about the nightmares. They are real, and they don’t go away.
Save yourself the trauma. Backup your work.