PC Vitals for Every Freelance Writer

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If you’ve never experienced the horror of a computer screen turning stark blue and displaying garbled characters while you are working on it, then lucky you. My advice is to never take things for granted. Computers have a nasty habit of hiding their internal illnesses until it’s too late, by telling you one thing when they mean another, or by playing tricks on your mind.

If, however, you have experienced this scenario, you won’t need me to remind you of the blood curdling scream that came from your throat, or the moment of rapid pleading with a metal box, or the red mist of anger that followed very soon after. You’ll already know what it’s like to have your PC, something you came to think of as a friend, get up and desert you just like that.

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare.

But it is avoidable. Here are a few tips to help keep your PC in tip-top shape, and to spot those all important warning signs that not everything is as it should be.

Only Install What You Need

Don’t install software you will probably never use. It only takes up room, and makes unnecessary entries into the computer’s registry, which over time, slows it down considerably.

When you do install software, always keep a copy of the installation executable, and always keep this updated at regular intervals. If you ever find you have to start again and rebuild your PC, or even get a new one, you will be able to get back to where you were relatively easily.

Make a regular point of going through the installed programs list in the Control Panel and removing what you rarely use.

Hard Drive Maintenance

Your PC comes with a disk defragmenter and surface scanner – use them regularly.

The disk defragmenter will reorganize the data on your hard drive, to ensure faulty sectors are either repaired or removed. This process also optimizes your system to run software faster.

The surface scanner checks for physical errors that can then be repaired, or give you warning that something more serious might be on the cards, and that action should be taken.

Keep Your Anti-Virus Software Updated

There’s a multitude of subscription and free anti-virus software products on the market, so the modern freelance writer can have no reason for not having some form or protection on his PC.

Scan For Malware And Adware Regularly

Along with anti virus software, these utilities keep your system free from the full spectrum of ware’isms, to the risk of data theft. There are several free products available in the Internet that do this job wonderfully, which no serious freelance writer should be without.

Remove All Crap

CCleaner is a highly recommended tool to remove the crap that builds up in a PC over time. It quickly and easily rids your machine of unwanted cookies, temporary files, logs, and installation garbage, clearing up space, and ensuring integrity.

CCleaner is also excellent at keeping your system registry in tip-top shape, by scanning for obsolete entries, missing links and files, and removing them after taking a backup.

Keep Regular Backups

Perhaps the most important thing a writer can, and should, do regularly. If you take nothing else from this article, you should at least take heed of this section, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough.

Should you lose your PC to internal failure, you can always buy another one. But if that failure means the loss of the directory called “All My Writing,” and you have taken no backups, your life is over.

There’s no excuse for not backing up regularly. Once per month is not enough – it should be done at least once per week minimum, and daily if you have works in progress.

Whether you back the whole lot up onto a DVD in one go, or do it file by file because your system still uses 4.5” floppy disks – DO IT! You will never forgive yourself if the worst happens.

Watch for Warning Signs

PCs often give off subtle warnings that a failure is impending, so it would be useful to be able to recognize them. Should you spot any of the following, take immediate backups of everything, and start running checks.

At Boot Up
– Watch for any difference in the start-up messages as your PC boots up, such as hardware not being located, registry information missing, control, or system file errors, etc.
– Listen for strange noises coming from the hard drive as it gets going. Squeaks, groans, or moans can indicate something is wrong.
– Keep an eye on the boot-up time. Is it getting slower or does it appear to be struggling? If so, do a back up and run your checks.

While In Use
– Have you noticed applications taking a while to load up, or when in use, are they running slower, hanging for no reason, or closing down unexpectedly? Don’t leave it until it dies before doing something about it.
– Does your hard drive go through periods of seemingly intense use when nothing is happening? Watch the CPU and make sure it’s not being over-used – a larger issue could be unfolding.

At Shutdown
– Does the machine take a while to shut down?
– Does it hang while closing down, leaving you to pull the plug to shut it down for the night?
– Are there any spurious messages on the screen?

Any of these things could indicate there is a problem. The rule of thumb if you spot a potential problem is to take a backup, then get it checked out.

When To Do All Of This

Daily – Incremental backups on all WIPs, checks on PC running stability.
Weekly – AV quick scan, ad/malware quick scan, crap clean, full backup of all data.
Monthly – AV deep scan, ad/malware deep scan, full backup of the entire system (data and applications).

Staying on top of your PC’s integrity can save a freelance writer much embarrassment, time, and money – even his career. Don’t be a fool and fall into the “it will never happen to me” trap, because when you start thinking like that, the chances are you’re next.

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15 thoughts on “PC Vitals for Every Freelance Writer”

  1. Colin, great article. The only problem is when I try to access “10 best free programs to keep windows protected”, I get a 404 page.

  2. One small point: defragging and surface scanning a drive can help it run faster, but they absolutely will not prevent a physical hard drive failure. A hard drive can die in the blink of an eye–they’re actually rather fragile mechanisms–and the only good hard drive is one that’s backed up regularly.

    There are companies that will try to rescue a dead drive, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to get anything, much less everything, and the service generally costs a few thousand dollars. A backup drive–or two, since the backup is still a hard drive and just as susceptible to failure–is a whole lot cheaper. Even a small flash drive, which holds the most important files you’re working on is better than nothing.

  3. This is a great post. Sometimes it is very easy to get so busy you don’t have time to take care of this stuff. This is very much like most us when it comes to our physical health as well. We tend to put off all the maintenance stuff until something breaks. Well, it just might be too late if you wait until something breaks to take care of it.

    I have to remember what Tony Robbins says here. “You want to kill the beast while it is little.” Fix the problems while they are simple and easy to fix…

    Good stuff

  4. Yeah, when I bought this laptop last year, I told my husband, “I don’t want wireless. I’ll sit here and play all day instead of working.” But now, I can’t imagine not having it – I can work anywhere I want! And talk about portability! YAY!

  5. Colin – thanks for the excellent post. I’m going to link to it from my blog. You’ve touched on one of the greatest nightmares of freelance writers everywhere – but you didn’t just hit us with the disaster details, you also gave us some practical advice to help prevent the worst from happening.

    To your success,

    Sue LaPointe
    #1 ranked writer on Guru
    Working Writer Happy Writer

  6. My favourite programs for maintenance include
    Diskeeper (really good automatic defrag)

  7. The bit about backing your stuff up is vital. I started out being really rigorous but gradually I backed up less and less.
    A few weeks ago my hard drive failed in my laptop and couldn’t be saved. I lost months of work – what an idiot!
    Still, it was only my day job, so nothing of any real life significance!

  8. OH I totally second making sure everything you have is backed up. And to make sure your backup DVDs are in good shape!!

    I lost a hard drive two Septembers ago. I thought, well, I have last week’s backup right here. No. The DVD had been used so much it had become corrupted. This left me with a six month old backup that I was darned lucky to find.

    I lost *lots* of stuff that I’ll never have back again.

  9. The best advice would be: get a proper OS…

    (Anything with “windows” in its name is answering the question “out of what should I throw this piece of junk?”)

  10. Whether you back the whole lot up onto a DVD in one go, or do it file by file because your system still uses 4.5” floppy disks – DO IT!

    I’ve seen 5.25″ floppies, and 3.5″ floppies (and even 8″ not-very-floppies), but I’ve never seen 4.5″ floppies 🙂

    Watch for any difference in the start-up messages as your PC boots up

    Boots up? I think I remember one of mine doing that about a year and a half ago…

    One small point: defragging and surface scanning a drive can help it run faster, but they absolutely will not prevent a physical hard drive failure. A hard drive can die in the blink of an eye

    They can, but if you ever actually see a hard drive failure in your life, there’s something wrong. (I’ve seen a few, but I’ve been in this business for a while, and decades ago they didn’t make drives like they do now; I don’t expect to ever see another. The mean time between failures on modern hard drives should be far, far longer than you’ll keep the drive in use – I’ve got one that’s been running without downtime for 13 years…)

    [Laptops excepted; if you bump the thing around regularly, you can expect it to fail]

  11. Peter,

    I doubt you’ve been around in “the business” long enough if you haven’t witnessed a hard drive failure. I’ve worked in I.T. for many, many years, and have witnessed it happen in various forms. When it happens it’s an awful feeling, and if your livelihood depends on it…say no more.

    The bottom line – make backups, whether data or otherwise. Everything man-made WILL fail at some point in time. End of story.

    If your hard drive has lasted 13 years then good luck to you. Personally, I’d be looking to get a new one before lady luck walks out of the room.

    The whole point of the article, in all its glory, summed up in a few words, is simply this: back up your data, and look after your machine. It’s not not what size the disks are or what operating system is used, it’s what contingency you have in place for when disaster strikes.


  12. I so second what Colin said. I hear people going on all the time about how wonderful flash drives are and how great they are for backups – but those things fail quicker than hard drives, and hard drives *do* and *will* fail. I had a hard drive fail right out of the box, the replacement two months later, and this was just two years ago. Nothing in this universe is impervious to flaws.

  13. I doubt you’ve been around in “the business” long enough if you haven’t witnessed a hard drive failure.

    What part of “I’ve seen a few” do you interpret as never having seen one? I’ve seen some spectacular failures back in the day when hard drives were the size of modern washing machines. I don’t expect to see a modern one fail. MBTF on a modern drive is like 20+ years; normal people replace their hard drives while it’s still 4 or 5 sigmas out from a failure.

    If your hard drive has lasted 13 years then good luck to you. Personally, I’d be looking to get a new one before lady luck walks out of the room.

    Note: it’s been running the whole time – it’ll actually live longer that way (the temperature stays constant, no current spikes at power-on, etc., etc.); and of course I have newer drives…

  14. One of the biggest things is to have quality surge protection on all your computer equipment. Don’t buy the cheap hardware store type, either. I get power outages for a second or more about once a month – in two different cities. Air conditioning, power companies, lightning, vacuum cleaners all contribute to big voltage spikes and brown outs.

  15. Ugh. Hard drive failures! I’ve had two — but I’m still using the same drive. Sometimes you lose a sector in your FAT (file allocation tables) or in a key OS sector that keeps you from booting up. Sectors go bad. It happens all the time. Usually, they aren’t key and you don’t even notice.

    Just don’t chuck your drive if it fails; there are usually ways to bring it back to life or at least salvage the data. You can buy cables to jack it up to another computer as an external hard drive if you’ve lost a boot sector and still find all your data intact.

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