Jilly: Back Up Your Work (Dead Tree Version)

Did you know the UK still prints its laws on vellum? This may sound like something out of a Terry Pratchett story, but there is a tall tower in the Palace of Westminster full of rolled vellum scrolls inscribed with legislation, including some dating back more than five hundred years.

Earlier this year the House of Lords voted to discontinue vellum scroll record-keeping on cost grounds. You’d have thought this was the ideal opportunity to bypass paper and go direct to digital-only storage, but after due consideration the Cabinet Office decided to stick with scrolls (and agreed to pick up the bill). The reason might be that we Brits love a good tradition (true!), and I’m sure there are digital libraries of new legislation as well, but there are sound reasons for deciding to keep  physical records.

Those reasons apply to writers, too.

Last month Justine posted a reminder about establishing good online security habits – backup your work, encrypt and create a good password. Click here to read more of her excellent advice.

I know a few people still write longhand, but for most of us now, digital technology is our default. We might debate Word over Scrivener, Mac vs PC, cloud storage compared with a hard drive or a thumb drive, but we create digitally and because we know bad things can happen, we take precautions to make sure we can recover our work in the event of a catastrophe.

Digital backups are the obvious and most convenient way to avoid losing our work, but there are a number of reasons why you should consider adding a physical backup to your armory – not every day, but at important stages in your work. Here’s why:

Malicious attack
Viruses, malware, ransomeware, or a just-for-fun individual hack like the one described in Justine’s post – the downside of connectivity is that we’re increasingly exposed to bad stuff, and if your backup sources are linked and automated, there’s a chance the backups might get hit too.

Weird Stuff Happens
Last week I was happily typing away at my WIP when for no discernible reason, Word decided to change a chunk of my text to Chinese characters. A quick search of the internet revealed that this is a known glitch. None of the quick fixes listed worked. My laptop was backing up automatically at frequent intervals. Unfortunately that meant it backed up the Chinese file. The most recent usable file I recovered was almost an hour old. That cost me a few hundred words and a lot of swearing, but it could have been worse.

Backups fail
Have you ever checked a backup (or gone to restore from one) and found it was corrupted or empty or otherwise unusable? It happens.

And most importantly of all:

Obsolescence
Digital files aren’t readable without the correct technology, which is changing at a terrifying rate. I have music on vinyl, tapes, CD, and now digitally. I have (very old) work documents backed up on magnetic tapes, on floppy disks, on diskettes and on CDs. Laptops and PCs don’t have CD players as standard any more, let alone disk or tape drives, and as for the software to read said documents – not a chance.

Another example. Between 1984 and 1986 more than a million people around Britain took part in the Domesday Project. A statistical survey plus people’s personal thoughts and memories were stored on special laser discs – the cutting edge technology of the time. Within twenty years there were virtually no players left that could read the discs. Domesday Book itself however, written in the eleventh century, is still readable – the oldest government record still held in the National Archives. Click here to find out more.

So when you’ve finished a first draft or a final draft, or if you decide to put a manuscript to one side for a few weeks or months while you work on something else, consider printing out and filing a hard copy before you move on to your new, shiny project. If your time horizon is weeks, months, years or decades rather than centuries, good quality paper and ink should suffice.

You (or your children or grandchildren) might be glad you did!

7 thoughts on “Jilly: Back Up Your Work (Dead Tree Version)

  1. Jilly, I definitely support this message 🙂

    I have physical as well as digital copies of my writing for the very reasons you’ve stated above.

    Having spent many a happy hour reading ancient books and documents, I love the fact that the Cabinet Office decided to stick with scrolls. How ironic though that the old Doomsday Book is still readable while the newer version is obsolete.

  2. I really like editing on hard copy. There’s just something magical about drawing in lines, writing in margins, circling and “moving” things with symbols and ink. I often found, back when I was doing a lot of editing and re-writing, that the act of physically re-typing a second draft into the computer gave me a lot more creativity and made me take more care with typos and mistakes. (-: I’m sure the process introduced new mistakes into the draft as well, but it did help with the old ones!

    I remember when I was first word-processing. We used some sort of thermal printer, and the papers faded with age like old cash receipts. Nowadays, I don’t notice that so much, but I do notice how susceptible the ink is to water . . . one little spill, and you’ve got an avant-garde water painting instead of a manuscript.

    • I remember our thermal fax print-outs used to fade and disappear. Now nobody uses fax machines any more ;-). Hard copy isn’t a perfect safety net, of course – it probably wouldn’t survive a flood or a fire – but it’s a useful alternative and it’s amazing how well paper and ink can last. When we sold my mum’s house a couple of years ago I found family correspondence written by my grandmother in the 1930s. I have the original deeds to my house, written in the late 19th century. And a few months ago my old university curated a Shakespeare exhibition that included his hand-written will and deeds relating to the financing and purchase of the Swan Theatre.

      • And the handwriting back then was so beautiful! Now if I have to do more than sign my name a half-dozen times, my signature becomes all but illegible.

        I love the idea that all the laws will still be written on vellum. Nothing like that exists here in the States, and it seems like our collective memories don’t go back further than 15 minutes. But although I back up my WIP to Dropbox every day, I think I should put my old manuscripts on a thumb drive, too. Can’t hurt.

      • LOL, it’s kind of joke now that the FAX machine is still alive and well in Japan. I think it has to do with the language system — when the first “typewriters” were introduced, they had a grid of 2000 plus characters (Chinese and almost 100 of the native, phonetic scripts), so they were expensive and needed a lot of training to use. Plus, I’m pretty sure they weren’t very good for people who can use up to 10,000 characters in their writing (the sort of educated person who would actually use “peripatetic” in a sentence and actually mean it — English-language analog, anyway). So, handwriting is still a huge deal. Computers and word processors that could deal with the Japanese language easily were just coming in 20 years ago, so I think in many ways, Japanese word-processing is about 50 years behind the States (they do catch up quickly, which is why I say only 50 instead of 100 years). At any rate, the fax machine lets you write stuff, and handwriting is still very important in Japan.

        I really love the idea of a haiku or a scroll surviving hundreds of years — just rag and ink, really, but potentially encompassing a whole world. My family doesn’t have anything like that up in the attic, but the museums often have beautiful, original documents. Much better than fax paper.

        Writing content aside, I’ve got a bit of a thing for beautiful writing — shape, form, ink, paper. I wish I were an artist in that sense, as well.

        • It makes sense that handwriting would be important in Japan. Once when I was in LA, I went to a Japanese stationery store, and I went nuts buying notebooks, stationery, and pens. Everything was so beautiful! And I’m still using that stuff up, because, like I said, my handwriting sucks.

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