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8 Ways to Protect your Data from the Unthinkable

April 17, 2012

Let me start this post with a little bit about my background.  I graduated from technical school in 1980 as a Certified Electronics Technician.  This led me into the computer industry as a field engineer well before the advent of the PC, and I worked on mainframe and mini-computers doing system builds and installations.  I performed component level repair with schematics, an oscilloscope, and a box full of IC chips, and I also wrote code at the machine language level in octal and hexadecimal, so when I say that I am a computer expert, I am not exaggerating.  I went on to own two different network consulting firms and held the IT position for a major Brokerage house.  In all the years that I worked on and with systems, I never lost any customer data.  Not one byte.  Using this experience, I have developed a system of data protection that has served me for years without any problems.  This doesn’t mean that I won’t wake up tomorrow to find that everything is wiped out, but it would require the onset of the Zombie Apocalypse, and smoke billowing from my Netbook would be the least of my worries.  Here are eight ways to protect your data that should allow you to handle everything from a fat-fingered ‘cut-and-paste’ to a catastrophic system failure and come out the other side with a clean, current copy of your writing projects.

  1. Use the word-processing package of your choice.  There are great options on the market for word processing, but make sure that you are proficient with the one you choose.  Without a solid working knowledge of the software, it is easy to ‘fat-finger’ a real mess that would take a long time to correct.  Learn to use the shortcut keys to speed up your writing, and make sure that you are familiar with the ctrl+ and fn+ features.  Knowing what the different shortcuts do will allow you to repair minor catastrophes.
  2. Be organized.  This is, without a doubt, the most important step that you can take to protect your data, and the one that most people ignore.  It is important to know where your files are.  It makes the backup process much easier and more reliable.  Having each project in a separate folder allows you to click and drag backup copies without having to select from a massive list of ill-named files.  It also saves time by allowing you to find what you are looking for without scrolling through pages and pages of file names.  I have a folder called Writing_Projects underneath My Documents. Under that is a unique folder for every one of my projects, and I use folder names that are relevant and identifiable.  This makes quick work of opening the correct file, and I can find what I am looking for without any trouble.  It takes very little time to go to my ‘Cool_Scifi_Story’ folder, open the current revision, and get to work.  Notice that I have used underscores in place of spaces.  This is a habit that I developed years ago to prevent compatibility issues with systems that do not recognize long folder or file names.  It makes the name easier for the system to truncate.  It’s not absolutely necessary, but it is a good habit in case you wish to move your file to a different platform.  Non-spaced names are very cross-platform friendly.  Again, you don’t have to do it, but it is a good practice.
  3.  Start every major writing session with a new revision.  Each of my folders contains multiple revisions of a manuscript, but don’t confuse this with the standard use of the term.  In this case, a revision is simply a new copy for the current session.  When I sit down to a new day of writing, I open the last revision and use ‘save as’ to give it the next revision number.  For example, I will open ‘Cool_Scifi_Story_Rev7,’ click ‘save as,’ and rename it to ‘Cool_Scifi_Story_Rev8.’  This way, if I really screw things up, I can always go back to the previous version and start over.  Believe me, it happens.  Yes, you may build up a large list of files, but you also have the option of going back and pulling out that great piece of dialogue from Rev4, and pasting it over the new dialogue that you just realized is total crap.  The revision file name example of ‘Cool_Scifi_Story_Rev8’ means that I have seven prior revisions in my folder, and they constitute the first level of backup protection for my manuscript.
  4. Use ‘auto-save.’  Simple and self-explanatory.
  5. Make a resident backup file.  This only takes a few clicks, and while it is in the current folder and susceptible to the same calamity as the original, it is a way to make a fast copy during the writing process.  I copy to the backup file if I’m going to leave to pick up the kids from school, or any other time that I’m going to put the system in hibernate. This gives me an identical copy of the current revision.  All I do is ‘save as’ to a file in the same directory with a simple name like ‘Cool_Scifi_Story_Backup.’  It gets written over every time, and I can perform a quick restore from this file with a couple of clicks.
  6. Keep a dated external backup.  I love USB drives.  They feed the Trekker in me.  The technology is simple, and they are hard to break, so they make a fairly reliable backup media.  Since my work is organized in folders, I am able to drag and drop a backup with one click.  Once the folder is copied to the USB, I use ‘rename’ to add the current date to the end of the folder name to get ‘Cool_Scifi_Story_041712.  If I am feeling especially paranoid, I’ll make a copy to a second USB.  Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of flash drives.  They fail.  Everything does, so I feel more comfortable making the second copy when I’ve hacked out a large chunk of text.  If you’re like me, and write 5-6000 words a day, a second backup is a definite plus.  I carry one of the flash drives on my key chain, and an added bonus is the fact that I have portability.  I can work on a manuscript on another computer if the opportunity arises.
  7. Backup online the cheap and easy way.  Paid online backup services are nice, but they are . . . well . . . paid.  I try to keep my costs down, and paying for online backup is not in my budget, not when I can do it for free.  Like almost everyone I know, I have more than one email account, so I email the manuscript to my main Yahoo account as an attachment and save those emails to a folder called Backups.  If I lose a project file, I can open the attachment, save it to Word, and be writing in just a few minutes.  This also allows portability.  I can open the file and work on it from the computer at school, the library, or a Cyber-Café.
  8. Make a full system backup on a weekly basis.  I use a stand-alone drive that plugs into a USB port, and I’ve set Windows to schedule a full system backup every Saturday morning at 3:00 am.  This gives me the ability to restore everything onto my Netbook and retain all of my custom settings.  It is a better solution than having to reload Windows, reset all of my customizations, reinstall all of my applications, rebuild the folder architecture, and restore all of my Word files.  While I find that kind of work to be great fun, you won’t like it, and you will probably have to pay someone to restore your system.  Drives are cheap, and the computer does all of the work while you sleep.

This list may seem like the ranting of a paranoid schizophrenic, but I’ll remind you that in thirty plus years as a computer professional, I have never lost any data.  It is not difficult or time-consuming to protect your hard work.  The trick is to follow a routine that allows you to place copies in multiple locations, so follow the lead of NASA, and go for triple redundancy.  It is worth the effort.

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