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One of the most important things for writers to do is to back up their work so that in the event of a computer failure, their work isn't lost. But where's a good place to do that? A lot of storage sites have little details in their TOS that gives them the right to use/modify anything uploaded to their servers. This can really pose problems for writers. Are there any that are free of legalese that won't hamper writers?

For example, in the ToS for Google Docs is "By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services" which could potentially bite a writer in the butt.

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possible duplicate of Do You Use Any Version Controlling Software/Methods As Writers? –  Slick23 Jan 20 '11 at 19:30
There's a difference between wanting to save multiple versions of a story than wanting to have it backed up in a safe location. I'm not interested in saving multiple versions of my story, I'm interested in a way to keep my writings safe from being lost. –  Ralph Gallagher Jan 20 '11 at 20:10
I don't think these are duplicate questions, but most version control methods will also work for backing up, so anyone interested in backups may want to check out that question too. –  sjohnston Jan 20 '11 at 20:17
@sjohnston: I have to disagree. My version control and my writing files are on the same partition. I back them up both. Version control and backup are two different things. –  John Smithers Jan 21 '11 at 9:32
See, @sjohnston, here you have the problem: if you want any benefit from a version control system, then you have to back it up! The scenario you described is doomed. And Non-Techies (our normal audience here), read it and think: "Wow, I just use a version control system and then I do not need a backup." And that's wrong! You need a backup of your version control. It is not the backup. –  John Smithers Jan 21 '11 at 16:33
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8 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

USB drives are notoriously unreliable. To use only USB drives for backups is enormously risky.

Dropbox is great... for synchronizing files. I use Dropbox to synchronize files between my two computers, and to make my files available on my iPad and iPhone.

I'm concerned about using Dropbox as the sole backup system, and here's why. A few months ago, the disk on which I store my writing died. While I was trying to sort that out, I did something (but I don't know what) that led Dropbox to conclude that I'd deleted all of my files. Dropbox (being focused on synchronization, not backup and restore) dutifully "deleted" its copy of my files from its server.

Then I made another mistake: I ran to my other computer (which had copies of all my files), and tried to restore from there. But Dropbox (being enormously dutiful) said, "Hey, Dale deleted all these files from one computer. I'd better delete them from this one, too!" And it started deleting the files from my second computer. I was able to disconnect Dropbox before it had done much damage, but some damage had been done.

Now, in addition to storing the current state of your files, Dropbox also stores earlier versions of those files. If you accidentally delete a file, Dropbox makes it easy to retrieve the file. But I had "lost" more than 10,000 files, and Dropbox offers no easy way to restore huge numbers of files.

I don't mean any of this to be a knock on Dropbox. For one thing, I made several mistakes that led to the disaster. But (you'll have to trust me on this) I'm a reasonably smart dude, and the mistakes I made were not obviously boneheaded. For another thing, Dropbox is terrific for synchronizing files. For its intended purpose, Dropbox is fast, reliable, and painless.

It is not (yet) great for backup, but that's because Dropbox was not designed for backup. Until Dropbox adds features specifically designed for backup and restoration, it is only moderately safe for those purposes.

So... my backup system consists of several layers.

Source code control. I use a tool called Git to take frequent snapshots of each writing project. I can easily roll a project back to any earlier moment. Git is a pretty darned geeky tool, designed primarily to manage code for software developers. I recommend it highly, but only for folks who are comfortable with esoteric, geeky command line tools. There are other tools that are more user-friendly, such as TortoiseSVN for Windows. But even that is technically quirky enough to befuddle most non-geeks.

But Git (the way I use it for my writing projects) stores its copies on the same disk as my writing project. If that disk dies, I lose both the current files and the earlier versions. So...

Local backup. I use a built-in Mac tool called Time Machine to make backups to an external disk every hour. These are "incremental" backups, which means that it copies only the files that have changed since the last backup. Time Machine allows you to look at the state of your computer at any time in the past, and restore files, folders, or whole disks to any given moment. For Windows users, numerous similar tools are available (though I can't make any recommendations there).

But my external disk sits beside my computer. If some physical disaster hits my room (flood, earthquake, puppy), I could lose both my computer and the external disk. So...

Offsite backup. I use a service called JungleDisk to back up my files "to the cloud" every night. My files are copied to an external data center (in my case, one of Amazon's data centers). The initial backup can take a long time (perhaps days, depending on your connection speed and the number of files you want to back up). But once the initial backup is done, the nightly incremental backups take about five minutes. JungleDisk/Amazon charge based on how much data you store and how much you transfer each month. My monthly bill runs between $2 and $3 per month. About the cost of four paperback books per year.

But this "cloud-based" offsite backup is on the same planet as my computer. If some disaster hits Earth... Well, I'll live with that. Or not.

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If some disaster hits Earth, I think my files being backed up will be the least of my problems. =P –  Ralph Gallagher Jan 20 '11 at 21:00
Even free Dropbox accounts can undo revisions and deletions for 30 days. The process is explained on their webpage. That said, it certainly never hurts to have multiple backup systems. –  sjohnston Jan 20 '11 at 22:01
Yes, that procedure works beautifully to restore a single file, or a few files. The challenge is trying to restore a hierarchy of many files to a snapshot as of a given moment--for example, to restore your entire disk to the state it was in Jan 15 at 11am. If you try to restore a whole folder, Dropbox restores the latest version of every file that has ever been in the folder, not just the ones that were there as of Jan 15. You can individually select which files to restore, but that's a horrendous task when you're trying to restore 10,000 files. –  Dale Emery Jan 21 '11 at 0:46
I keep my files in a TrueCrypt volume on Dropbox. This way there's only a single .tcv file to restore should a disaster occur. –  raven Feb 4 '11 at 18:48
I have a desktop and a laptop computer, so I'm now keeping the main Mercurial repositories on DropBox, and local repositories on my computers. That way, even if I screw up DropBox, I'll have a correct version on one computer or another. –  David Thornley Mar 21 '11 at 0:42
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Dropbox works also very well and it offers 2GB free (enough for most writers). It also stores old versions for 30 days for the free accounts...

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I've been using Dropbox to back up my writing for several months. It's really better than just backup, because it also seamlessly synchronizes between any internet-connected computers. Also, you can bump the maximum storage on a free account up to as much as 8GB by doing the online tutorial and recruiting other users. –  sjohnston Jan 20 '11 at 21:55
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A simple solution is to send yourself an email containing important or recently changed files. If your email provider is something like Gmail then you have essentially limitless space for ever. Gmail doesn't (afaik) assert copyright claims on your email content beyond what is necessary to store and display your email. But if you ARE concerned, you can always encrypt your data first then send out the encrypted files. Then you only need to back up the key for the encryption (which is probably short enough that you could print it on paper and store it in a safety deposit box).

For my own backup purposes I store my data on a hard disk which is removable. Yes, the hard disk itself is vulnerable to failure and I could have both drives fail in the case of a house fire or theft. But if you are worried about that, make TWO hard drives and store one at a friend's house. Hard drives are cheap and relatively reliable.

Finally, for text you can always resort to printing it on paper and storing that somewhere. It's extremely reliable and simple, though a tad annoying to restore.

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Webmail is a bad idea if you ask me. You could possibly encrypt it really well... But, you're talking about storing something that could well be your most valuable property in a location that is notoriously vulnerable. Either from a random attack or a bit of spyware on your own computers? Unless you have a good SLA (are paying for the service), it's a very bad idea. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Jan 27 '11 at 19:53
@QuickerSnarkerBacker: Webmail is "notoriously vulnerable"? What kind of threat to you forsee? Spyware, trojans, worms, etc, typically are not interested in your writing but rather things that can be easily monetized such as address books, financial info, etc. If your computer is compromised to a degree that you are worried someone will steal your writing (and then leak it? copy it?) then no digital protection can stop them. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '11 at 14:03
The point is this is not a secure solution. I stated the case about the risk as a word to the wise. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Jan 31 '11 at 19:26
@QuickerSnarkerBacker: My point is that I think you are strongly over-stating the risk. When using computers, remember that random attacks don't care who you are (but are often easy to stop) and targeted attacks are essentially unstoppable given a sufficiently motivated attacker. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 31 '11 at 21:58
How many writers really have the problem of people stealing their work? Most of us have pretty much the opposite problem: people ignore our work utterly. Just go ahead and save your work on GMail. On the other hand, about 10 years ago, I sent out a screenplay about the problems endured by a group of vampires trying to fit into non-vampire society. I've only seen that used in maybe a dozen movies and TV shows since then... –  Malvolio Feb 7 '11 at 22:53
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In order for backups to really work, you need multiple factors in place:

  • Automation: If you forget to put a document or a document's version on a USB or email it to yourself, it is effectively not backed up. Dropbox is your best bet for this, with Mozy a close second.
  • Off-Site: Unless you have a system to regularly store copies in one of those indestructible black boxes, something as simple as a spilled coffee can ruin paper or external digital copies. Again, Dropbox, Mozy, or Amazon S3 server can accomplish this.
  • Version Control: If you have an automated system set up to back up a file that gets corrupted, you will have perfectly safe copies of a corrupted file. Version control ensures that you never lose any changes, no matter how small. My suggestion is mercurial (hg) and bitbucket, which fulfills the off-site requirement as well. But the earlier mention of git and github works just as well. A matter of preference, and easy to learn with a little knowledge of terminal navigation. Commit early, commit often.
  • Easy retrieval: it's pointless to have a backup if you can't find it or get easy access to it. Using a repository system like mercurial or git would allow you to not only to easily retrieve the documents, but also every change ever committed.

I personally use a combination of dropbox, mercurial, and bitbucket.

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I've also tried huddle.net. There is a decent amount of space for free and you can pay for more if needed. This site is built for business applications, so you can actually invite others to log onto your site, giving them access to whatever you want - easy for an editor to make changes that way. Maybe not perfect, but it's free and seems pretty secure so far.

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I store my writing in an encrypted file on my hard disk using TrueCrypt and periodically store the encrypted file on DropBox. I also keep all the files in a Git repository inside the TrueCrypt volume, but that isn't really for backup purposes.

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Try this, it's easy, fast and portable: iGoUSB. It runs the backup in just 20 seconds if you run it daily. It also saves (encrypted or not) your old versions if you need to access deleted portions of your documents.

Disclaimer: creator of the product.

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I can back up documents on a USB drive without paying for a program. I'm not sure why I'd want to spend money on something I can do for free just as easily. –  Ralph Gallagher Jan 20 '11 at 19:05
Of course you can, only this will save you time over and over again, as you don't need to remember which files to copy. It also saves your versions, which is not easily done with a copy operation. It allows backup locally and on the network as well. –  igousb Jan 20 '11 at 19:27
please see our FAQ. Self-promotion is frowned upon in this community, as you have no doubt noticed from the down votes and comments you have received. This comment especially violates the rule whereby you must declare your affiliation with the product when you post. In the future please abide by our FAQ - your self-promotion should be limited if not non-existent. –  justkt Jan 20 '11 at 20:11
@justkt - Disclaimer added. –  igousb Jan 20 '11 at 21:15
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I am in the computer field, and slightly paranoid about backups of everything. For my writing, I actually keep 3 copies minimum of everything. There are a few things I've done that work well for me, and I understand that for others these might not work, but there are similar services.

  1. I use Live Mesh and Dropbox to keep two computers in sync. I haven't completely decided which one I like better, so I have some things with Live Mesh and some with Drop Box. In both cases, they keep a copy in the "cloud" so that if I lost both machines I could still get it, but this at least gets me partially protected and keeps notes, text, Word, etc. in sync. If I change a document on the road, or upstairs, by the time I hit my desktop 5 minutes later, it's usually in synch.

  2. Windows Home Server - It's not the most reliable piece of software, but I have a Windows Home server that backs up the PCs in the house (and the iMac). It's a turnkey solution from HP if you want one and it keeps versions of files as well. I don't give it high recommendations, but if you get one, get 2-3 extra drives (min 4) so that you have multiple copies of stuff.

  3. Evernote - I like to work in text, and make lots of notes for writing, so I use Evernote on my phone. It syncs with the Evernote service, and I can also access it from my computer. I have started to drop text documents there (like speeches/talks) as well as ideas for writing when I'm on the computer.

  4. Burn DVDs - I know this isn't great, but for short term, 1-2 years, I think it's fine. What I might recommend is that you burn two Cds weekly of your work. Why two? Media can fail, and while you might not like losing a week's worth of work, you will hate losing two. Today's burners are quick, and I usually go one speed slower than they're rated and just make two copies periodically. I do this less with #1 and #2 above, but it still gives me another backup. Plus these are easy to take offsite.

  5. Thumb drives - They aren't reliable, but if you keep two separate, you ought to be OK in the short term.

If you want to use something like Google Docs but are concerned about their using your work, or licensing, get a small encryption program. Not a password protection, but a real encryption program like FolderLock (http://www.newsoftwares.net/folderlock/). Encrypt your work, then put it in the "cloud".

Note I would also recommend that you password protect all your devices (PC/Mac, Phone, etc). Just for casual security to prevent your kids, friends, etc. from messing with your computer and accidently wrecking your work.

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I keep all of my work encrypted with TrueCrypt =P –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 0:30
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