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Back up my hard drive?
I didn't even know it had reverse!

2007 Anna Furtado


Anna Furtado

Okay, so it's an old joke. I just couldn't help myself. I had been entertaining the idea of doing a column on how necessary backing up your writing and other important information is, when I recently faced down the dreaded Blue Screen of Death. (This is the blue screen, with no text or icons, which appears during a computer crash, particularly on a Windows platform computer. If you haven't saved your work before this happens, say Adios.) I saw this most recent occurrence as a sign, and thus, this month's column became a reality. (Just to allay the reader's fears—no lesbian-themed writing was harmed during my recent Blue Screen of Death episode.)

I try to remember to do regular backups of my writing; however, there are times when it just slips my mind, or I'm too darned tired to take a few more minutes at the end of a writing session. So, you see, I, too, tempt fate and the computer gremlins! However, looking at that Blue Screen of Death the other day made me renew my commitment to backing up my work, especially my writing files.

Consider backups an insurance policy. (You're in good hands with [insert choice of backup media here]. After all that hard work to create a story, or after toiling over those edits bit-by-comma, the last thing you want to do is lose your work.

There are myriad things to consider regarding backups. The first and most basic is: Who should do backups?

Once that decision has been made, these questions follow:
What media should you use?
When (how often) should you back up?
Where should you store your backups?
How should you perform these backups?
What should you back up?

Who should do backups?
If you've got any information on your computer over which you would lose sleep if it disappeared or became corrupted, you should be doing backups. As a writer, your intellectual property and the potential loss of it should be cause for concern. Consider the personal cost (in emotion and time) if forced to create that story from scratch, do that review all over again, write that essay from the beginning. If just thinking about that makes your skin go clammy and you start to hyperventilate, you should be backing up your work.

What media should you use?
Windows XP Professional comes with an automatic backup utility installed, I'm told, and it's possible to install the Windows XP Home Edition backup utility by using your Windows CD. The only thing you need to do then is to configure your backup parameters—then remember to keep your computer turned on when the backups are scheduled to run. Of course, if you're like me and you write intermittently, your weekly or monthly automatic backups may not be as current as you'd like them to be. If you're also like me, there are some days when you come home from work so tired you don't even want to look at your home computer so you might not even turn it on. I prefer to do my backups manually, after every session for my writing, and occasionally for all my other important information.

Tape backups, more often used by big business, are better used for entire system restores rather than for individual file restores and the set-up and administration of tape backups can be cumbersome and pricey. Older technology, including Zip and Jazz drives and good old floppies, can also be used if you have these drives available.

These days, however, the media of choice is thumb drives (also called flash drives and USB drives) and portable hard drives (also USB). The advantage to these is that they connect easily, don't require any additional software, and they look like just another drive on your computer. They are also very portable because of their size.

When (how often) should you back up?
If you use your computer every day, you may want to do daily backups—automatic or manual. Some people may find that a weekly backup is enough insurance for those nice warm fuzzies should something happen to those important files. I prefer to back up my writing after each session. I don't back up my non-writing files often enough, I'm sure, but I console myself with the adage that some backup is better than no backup at all. Take a hard look at what types of files you need to back up, and evaluate how often you use them to determine when you should back them up. More on this in the "What should you back up?" section.

Where should you store your backups?
Pick a medium—any medium. If your hard drive is partitioned (for example into a C and a D drive) you can always back up the information from one section to the other. That may help if an individual file gets corrupted, but it won't help you if your entire computer gives up the ghost—or gets lost, stolen or meets its untimely demise in some other disaster. (As your computer goes sailing by you in a tornado, Dorothy, you'd better hope your backup is in the storm cellar.)

Consider using CDs, DVDs, a Flash Drive, a portable hard drive or use the older technology of Zip (holds 100 or 250 MB) or Jazz (1 Gig) drives. CDs hold 700 MB of information (with a life expectancy of 5 years), DVDs hold 5 GB (life expectancy, 100 years) and Flash Drives and portable hard drives (usually with USB connections) have an indefinite life expectancy and hold varying amounts of data.

I have three flash drives that I carry around with me. I have a 1 GB drive on which I back up anything to do with my writing. This includes my manuscripts, columns, reviews, and any other related information. I also include backups of my author Web pages on this drive. I have a 256 MB flash drive that I use to back up other information from "My Documents" such as my checkbook register, documents not related to writing, Web Browser bookmarks (favorites), Profile settings from my "Documents and Settings" folder, and anything else I consider important. Since I use Yahoo! as my primary e-mail, I don't need to back up e-mail addresses because they aren't stored on my computer, but if you use Outlook or some similar program, consider backing up your address file as well. My third drive is only 128 megabytes in size. It's fine for quick transfers from one computer to another and I usually delete anything on this drive as soon as it's transferred.

Back in the day when my computer had a floppy drive, I used to use one floppy each for small groups of related documents. One for articles, one for a current novel, etc. But the new media holds so much more information and comes in such a variety of sizes that I find it more convenient. My current computer didn't even come with a floppy drive, but if that's all you've got, use it. (A large manuscript in MSWord fits on a floppy drive without any difficulty.)

You can also back up your files to the Internet. If you have a Web Hosting account for your Web site, you can put your backups into a private folder in your account where no one else can see them. A Web Hosting site will back up their server regularly, so you have additional insurance for your files and you can access your files from anywhere, from any computer. The disadvantage to using the Hosting Service is that you do have to access the files from the Internet, and if your service is ever down, you'll have to wait for it to come back up to get at your files. There are also Internet storage sites (some free, some charge a fee). Be aware that these dotcoms can be here today and gone tomorrow so it may not be wise to use this type of service as your sole backup.

Which brings me to some thoughts about physical locations: No matter how often or what media you use to perform your backups, consider storing a copy in a different location from your computer. I don't mean a CD in the living room and your computer in your home office. I'm referring to an entirely different physical location. If you travel with your laptop and your most recent backups are in the same computer case, stored on a flash drive, your computer and your "insurance" could get stolen, or damaged together (refer to the tornado scenario above). If you do a periodic backup on a CD, find a place outside of your home or your laptop case to store it; for example store it at work or at a friend's house (if you're concerned about snooping, you can always password protect your files).

How should you perform these backups?
If you're interested in automatic backups with Windows XP, check out Microsoft's Web site for more information. If you want information on purchasing third party backup systems, search for automatic computer backups on Google.

To perform manual backups onto any portable media (CDs, DVDs, Flash Drives, other portable drives), insert or connect them to your computer and follow the usual protocol for writing files to those drives. For CDs and DVDs, follow the instructions for burning them. Drag and drop the files into your flash drive or other portable drive—and you're done. Before beginning your back up, though, it's wise to perform a virus scan on the files. This will ensure that you don't transfer any "little buggers" onto your backup to perpetuate a problem that you're actually trying to solve.

Finally, remember to test your backups. Don't wait for a file to become corrupted or your hard drive to crash before you find out that your backups can't be opened, or when you do access them, they don't look like your original files because they've not been properly written to the backup media. Once you've made a backup, open a file or two to make sure it functions properly. Look at the file size (select View - Details in your toolbar when viewing the file list if you can't see this) to make sure that the files have data in them. A zero KB size would indicate that a file didn't copy properly.

What should you back up?
It is easier to perform a backup if everything is in one place on your computer. The logical location for your files is in your "My Documents" folder. If you're like me and like everything that you're currently working on at your fingertips on your desktop, use the "Create a Shortcut" feature and place only the shortcut on your desktop. This keeps the actual file in "My Documents" making your backup job easier. With everything in one place, you can access all the files that need backing up in one convenient location. Also note any other files (such as profiles for various programs that you may use) that need to be included in your regular backup routine that may not be stored in your "My Documents" folder.

In Summary—what should you remember about backups?
You have to actually do them to get the benefit—back up regularly.
Some backup is better than no backup at all.
Consider storing a copy of your files in a different physical location from your computer.
Remember to back up files containing browser bookmarks, profiles, and e-mail addresses as well as manuscripts, journals, spreadsheets, and all other important information.
Different media hold different amounts of information and have differing lifespans. Select from a wide array of choices according to need and preference.

And finally:
Backups may even prevent heart failure in the event of the Blue Screen of Death.
2007 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions
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