Backup for writers. What's your plan for avoiding disaster?

Warning. This article may feel more like a dry lecture than an article. If so, I apologise. Sort of. The thing is, on the topic of backup it's hard not to come across all holier-than-thou. But believe me, if you ever have a hard disk crash, or your computer is stolen – and it does happen – you'll be glad you read this and acted on it.

We've all heard sad tales of people losing an entire PhD thesis or book draft because their laptop was stolen or somehow failed. And we've probably also been guilty of thinking "that'll never happen to me". Today's computers feel so reliable. But they're not really. According to research done by backup service Backblaze, 20 per cent of hard disks fail before they are four years old; many more fail in the year or two after that.

How old is your computer and the hard disks inside it?

This is of particular concern when we are working on a long-term project – a book-writing project being an obvious example. The chances of something going wrong over the course of a project get higher the longer the project runs. In the case of some books, that can be years. But the same logic applies to any of your work that is still valuable to you years after you created it.

Backup is now very inexpensive, simple to set up and maintain – you'd be crazy not to be doing it. (Yes, we've come a long way since tape backups and Zip drives.)

Backup today can be broken into three broad categories, of which two are offsite and the other onsite. The most robust backup choice today has to be offsite. While security needs to be a consideration, modern online services offer arguably greater security than the locks on your doors.

Cloud storage/file sharing

Services like Dropbox, Box and others are not strictly backup services but rather offer 'cloud storage'. In other words, they store a copy of any files you select on a computer somewhere else in the world. Any changes you save to a file are synchronised between your computer and that 'cloud' version.

Nevertheless, if you store important files with a cloud service they are effectively backed up. Your files can also be synchronised to any other computers you use (including mobile devices), and they can easily be shared with others. My personal choice is Dropbox because I find it the most seamless to use.

Online backup

A step up from cloud storage in terms of sophistication and coverage are online backup services. Examples are Backblaze and Crashplan (there are many others). If you're in Australia and prefer to work with a local supplier, have a look at CyberSecure.

The main difference to users between online backup services and cloud storage services lies in the way you can access and share individual files. Online backup services will back up all your data, rather than just selected folders or files, with the idea that you'll only need to access that information in the case of a disaster. They can be cheaper for large amounts of data.

External drive backup

While it's nice to feel secure in the knowledge that your important information is stored away from your office or home in case of a really big disaster, I always like to have local backups too. For those, you'll want to be backing up to an external hard drive – generally a hard drive in a case that is plugged into your computer via a USB cable.

External storage is almost ridiculously cheap now, with two and even three terabytes (i.e. a lot) of hard disk space costing under $200. You can plug the drive in and use either the software that comes with it or separate backup application to manage the backing up for you. There are plenty of software options available for PC and Mac. For the latter, I use Carbon Copy Cloner and Apple's own Time Machine.

Just do it

So, as they say in the ads, don't delay – act now! If you don't have a backup plan in place, there's no reason why you can't have something up and running in the next five minutes. Most of the online services offer a free level or trial. After that, head down to your stationery store at lunchtime and pick up an external drive.

Then take a moment to stand back and bask in the glow of your well-earned self-righteousness.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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