John Steinbeck’s dog ate an early draft of Of Mice and Men. Ernest Hemingway famously lost an entire suitcase of his early writings – a suitcase that contained his originals and all his copies. The only copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The History of the French Revolution was destroyed when it was used to light a fire. It took him six months to recreate it. Dylan Thomas managed to lose the script for Under Milk Wood three times.
These days, if you’re using a computer to create and store your work, none of this should ever happen. While computer hard disks can fail and laptops can be lost or stolen, you should always have your precious work safely backed up. Making copies of computer files is a trivial matter and if disaster strikes, restoring your magnum opus to working order should be a simple matter of a few clicks.
Many writers have some informal system for backing up what they create. Perhaps they copy everything to a CD or USB drive from time to time, or email a copy to someone else. These approaches are a good start, but there’s no substitute for an automated mechanism. It’s all-too easy to forget to carry out a back up. Whole weeks can go by without one being made and that means whole weeks of work can be lost. Computers are good at mundane, repetitive tasks like this whereas people often aren’t.
Ideally, you should make (at least) two backups of everything you write : one local and one off-site or remote. The local one can be used to quickly recover an accidentally-deleted file, or to revert to an earlier version of a manuscript if something has been lost. A USB drive is ideal for this : they are cheap and portable. A 2GB (2 gigabyte) model can hold the manuscript of a 100,000 word novel a couple of thousand times over. You’ll also need some software to automatically perform the back up. There’s lots available, some of it free.
The remote backup is vital if disaster really strikes and both computer and local backup are lost (because of, say, theft or fire-damage). There are numerous services available on the internet that will use your broadband connection to back up your files in a safe, remote location. If the worst happens, you can just download them all and carry on working.
If you don’t have a backup scheme in place, set one up now before it’s too late.
Footnote : “Backup” and “back up” are often used interchangeably. The best approach is to treat “backup” as a noun : the name given to the copy of some data and to use “back up” as a verb : what you do to create a backup.