What do you do if your computer crashes and you lose your entire novel?
That would be bad.
That would be horrible.
That should never happen, but it does happen to some writers every year. And once a novel is lost, it’s lost.
The only solution is to travel back in time and backup your computer before your machine crashes.
There may well be a computer crash coming in your future. It happens to most people at some point, if they live long enough. It’s not fun, but there are two levels of not-being-fun:
- If your machine was backed up, you buy a new computer or get the old one repaired, and then you restore the machine from your backups, and you’re good to go. This will waste a day or two of your life and cause you some stress and cost you some money. But you won’t lose your novel.
- If your machine was not backed up, you buy a new computer or get the old one repaired, and then you have to rewrite your novel from scratch, because you can’t restore it.
Does your future self have a backup system in place?
If the answer is yes, then you’re good. No need to read the rest of this article.
If the answer is no, then let’s pretend your future self has traveled back in time to right now, and let’s change your future. Let’s get you set up with an automatic backup system to protect your precious novel.
You have three main options for backing up your system:
- An external hard drive that sits on your desk.
- An online backup system that lives in “the cloud”.
- An online syncing system that lives in “the cloud.”
All three of these are good options. I use all three, because they all have pluses and minuses. Your novel is important. Keep it safe every way you can.
Backing Up To An External Hard Drive
An external hard drive is a small box that sits on your desk. You connect it to your computer with a cable. Any modern computer comes installed with backup software that will constantly keep your backups up to date. Whenever you make changes on your computer, the software will save the new copy to your backup hard drive. And it will keep the old copy, so you can get back to the way it was before.
These days, external hard drives are cheap and hold a lot of data. I recommend you get one that holds at least 1 TB (that’s a thousand gigabytes). It’s not much more money to get 2 TB or more. You can get a very good external hard drive with loads of memory in the $100 to $200 range. You can get a decent one for under $100.
That’s not pocket change, of course. The question to ask is how much you’d be willing to pay to get back your novel if you suddenly lost it. If you’d be willing to pay more than the cost of an external hard drive, then get it.
You can order a good external hard drive online. Once it comes, power it up and connect it to your computer. Generally, you can connect with a simple USB cable, but there are other options. Check to make sure you buy one that connects to your machine.
If you’re using a Mac, your computer will ask you if you want to use your new hard drive to backup your system using “Time Machine.” What is Time Machine? It’s Apple’s free built-in software to backup your machine. Click on Yes and your system will walk you through the setup process. Then it’ll start backing up your machine. Probably in less than an hour, it’ll be done and you’ll be all backed up.
After that, as long as your external hard drive is connected to your computer, Time Machine will backup any changes you make. So you’ll always be up to date, or very close.
If you’re running a Windows machine, you can learn exactly how to do backups by doing an online search for “how to backup to an external hard drive using windows.” Follow the instructions and you’ll soon be all backed up.
If the world were perfect, that would be all you need. The external hard drive would be always there with a backup of your entire sytem.
But the world is not perfect. Your house could be destroyed by a fire, a tornado, a flood, an earthquake, or some other horrible disaster. That would destroy your computer and your external hard drive. A burglar could break in and steal them both.
So you need a second backup system. You want a backup that doesn’t live in your house on the same desk as your computer.
Backing Up to an Online Backup System
An online backup system lives somewhere else, in a secure place connected to the internet. It’s run by people who live and breathe security. Their job is to sell you a service—backing up the data on your computer to their secure computers. Using encryption and a password, so only you can read that data.
You just need to log in to their website, buy the service, and tell it what files to backup.
You’ll need to pay a monthly fee or an annual fee for this service, and that buys you some extra peace of mind.
What online backup service should you use? That’s up to you. There are a number of good ones, but they change from time to time. I’d like this blog post to be relevant five years from now, so I recommend that you do an online search for “best online backup services.” Your search will probably show you several articles in computer magazines that compare the various services. PC Magazine usually runs an article once a year that compares the best current services. Read that article or a similar one and make your choice.
The advantage of an online backup service is that it’s very secure. It’s much less likely to be destroyed than your external hard drive.
The disadvantage of an online backup service is that it is usually much slower than an external hard drive. If you have lots of data on your system and if your internet service is typical in speed, it might take days or weeks for your system to get fully backed up. And it would probably take a few days to fully restore your system if you ever need to.
So that’s why I recommend using both an external hard drive (Plan A) and an online storage service (Plan B). That way, you get high speed and high security.
And because I’m cautious, I also recommend Plan C, which is to sync your computer online.
Syncing Your Computer Online
Many people these days have more than one computer. They might have a machine at the office and a machine at home and maybe a light travel laptop.
And it’s handy to have those machines all able to see the same data. An online syncing system lets you do that. Then you can work on your novel at work, at home, on the road, or wherever. As you make changes on one machine, your changes get stored online and then they get updated to your other machines. Again, this is secure, so only you can see your data.
If one of your computers has to go to the shop for repairs, you can continue working on your novel from any of your other machines. Very handy when you need it.
If you have a Mac, Apple has made it very simple to sync everything in your Documents folder and Desktop folder using their iCloud service. To learn how, do an online search for “how to use icloud for documents and desktop” and follow the directions.
There are other online syncing services that are popular for both Windows and Macs: DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, etc. Do an online search and choose the one you like best.
You might ask how an online syncing service is different from an online backup service.
An online syncing service is geared towards syncing the current version of your data between several machines. It may also keep older versions of your files, but that’s not the main focus.
An online backup service is geared towards backing up the data of a single machine, along with previous versions of the data on that machine, in a way that makes it easy to restore files that have been lost. (Of course, you should verify that your online backup service actually saves all the previous versions back to the beginning. If a service doesn’t do that, I wouldn’t want to use it.)
So there you have it. Plan A is an external hard drive. Plan B is an online backup service. Plan C is an online syncing service. I use all three because my data is valuable to me. You get to decide which you’ll use, based on your own needs.
- If your computer crashed today and you lost all your data, how much would you pay to get it back? (If it was possible to get it back.)
- Do you have an external hard drive for backups?
- Do you have an online backup system?
- Do you have an online syncing system?
- What actions will you take to keep your data safe?
One Last Thought
I’ve been writing a column in my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine about once a year for the last several years on the subject of setting up automated backups. I know this gets repetitive, and it’s also scary to think about.
But every single year, I hear from a few people who email me to say that they took my advice, and then a few months later their computer crashed, and then they restored everything.
And they write to thank me for saving their data.
I hope very much your machine won’t crash, but I hope even more that you’ll be prepared. It takes a little effort today, but it’ll pay off for the rest of your life. And you’ll sleep better knowing your data is secure.