Writing process

The mechanics of writing: Backups, revisions and how many documents

I thought it might be a good time to talk about some of the housekeeping tasks associated with writing. The most important of these, of course, is backups.


I know people who never back up their work. It sets my teeth on edge when I talk to a novelist who has been working on their book for two years and find they have not backed the file up once in that time. Not so much because they haven’t backed it up, but because knowing that if they lose that one file they lose two years work.

I would be absolutely shattered.

I know that back-ups are boring, and take time out of writing, but consider what you might lose if you don’t have them.

You need to back-up to cover:

  • A corrupted file—what if your word processor crashes in the middle of typing and you can’t get the novel back?
  • Computer failure—your computer dies, or your hard drive crashes, or your computer-savvy son decides to reformat the disc for you, or your computer gets stolen
  • Human error—you accidentally delete the file.

In an ideal world I would also include more dramatic scenarios here, like your house burning down. If that happens, then the least of your worries will be the novel you spent two years slaving over (at least initially). Any good back-up recommendation should include considering this as well. However, here we will just consider computer failure or human error.

How we back up our novel

Here’s what we do. You may find it excessive, but it works for us.

We have a folder named for the novel. In this case, Barrain. Underneath this we have the latest draft. It’s a word document. The document is named for the novel and the draft. For example, Barrain_Draft3.doc.

In the Barrain directory we have a sub-directory called Backup. Each night before we open the document, we copy the current Barrain_Draft3.doc into the Backup directory. We then rename it to include today’s date at the start of the file name. For example, 20070222_Barrain_Draft3.doc. We write the date in YYYYMMDD format so that the files are ordered.

Note that I said we do this before we open the document. The problem with doing it from within the word processing program is that you must do a ‘save as’, save the file into the backup directory with the new name, then close the file, and open the original again.

If you are anything like me, you’ll forget to do the second part and start typing in the backup file. Then the next day, when you open the Barrain_Draft3.doc file, all yesterday’s work is missing.

It may seem excessive, but this way we have a complete version of every day’s work.

Once a week I copy the latest version over onto one of the other network PCs (one of the advantages of having a home network), and every couple of months I copy it onto a flash drive instead.

For some people, this might be overkill, and it probably is, but it works for us. Disc space is cheap compared to two years lost work.

Most important for us though, is that it’s a habit.

Develop a habit of making regular back-ups.


Some people keep every revision. Others keep none. Some people do it via revision marks in the word processor they are using, others do it by saving major revisions.

It’s your choice.

Due to the way we back up our documents we effectively keep revisions anyway. On occasion I have gone back to another document to add something I deleted, but not often enough that I would miss it if I didn’t have it.

We always keep a copy of each major draft (and back it up on the flash drive, too).

One long document, or multiple documents?

We used to write each chapter as a separate document, and combine them at the end using Word’s multiple document functionality.

That caused a few problems. The multiple document functionality in Word back then was extremely buggy. I don’t know if it still is. Not only that, it was horrible moving stuff around. Outline view did not work well in multiple documents. Every so often the whole thing fell into a heap and we had to revert to backups. Most frustrating.

Nowadays we put the whole thing into one file. It ends up something like 1.5 Mb, which causes a few problems, but it is much more manageable, and outline* view works like a dream.

* A note re outline view. I’m talking MS Word here, and it works because I make chapter headings “Heading 1” and the breaks within each chapter “Heading 2”. I can’t imagine much value if you don’t do use heading styles.

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