Lately I’ve been using Dropbox as a place to store backups of stories and other writing projects. I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about my workflow and why you should look into the free account with Dropbox. Of course different media require different back-up strategies and a free 2 gigabyte account is not necessarily going to be the best solution for backing up your photos or your music, but for a writer who wants to protect their work, Dropbox is an excellent way to make off-site backups.
There are any number of ways to create regular backups of your computer, but as any writer or student whose hard drive has crashed with all of their recent work could tell you, the trick is to make sure your backups are a) up-to-date and b) easily recoverable. Additionally, backing up to cd or another drive won’t help if something happens to your apartment or home. Having an off-site backup is important, even if the odds are agains you ever needing it. All it takes is one fire, or one hurricane, or one tornado, or one flood to make you really wish you had your writing somewhere safe from disaster. I’m not going to bore you with all my various strategies for backing up, but I am starting to rely more and more on Dropbox as the place where I keep my currently active writing projects.
First of all, though, what is Dropbox? Basically it’s an online backup and file-sharing solution that you install on your computer (Windows, Mac or Linux). The installation creates a folder on your computer that you can then use like you do any other folder. However, the folder will, invisibly and with no need to perform any complicated set up, back itself up to Dropbox’s servers whenever anything in the folder changes. For any of you working on multiple computers, what this means is that you can have one folder that is continually synced across a number of computers and different operating systems. For some, that is the primary reason to get Dropbox.
However, if you are like me and do most of your work on one computer, what this means is that you can have instant and continual off-site backup of your important documents. Because the folder resides on your computer you don’t have to go out to the web to retrieve any of the documents inside your Dropbox folder, which means that you don’t have to be connected to the internet to access your files. However, after making even the slightest change to your document and saving, the file will auto-magically sync itself to the server version whenever your computer is connected. Even better, it does the sync incrementally, so instead of uploading the entire file again, it only uploads the changes to that file. Even even better, Dropbox’s servers take a snapshot of each document before making changes, so if you realize that the changes you made yesterday to your story were really stupid changes, and you don’t have any other local versions, you can go to Dropbox’s web interface and retrieve previous versions.
For the writer, there are two ways you could use Dropbox most effectively. The first, is simple use the folder as the home for all your current projects. That way, if something happens to your computer you know that all your latest work is backed up and easily accessible via another computer that you authorize with your account or through the web interface. Sure, 2 gigabytes doesn’t sound like a lot (and you can always pay for more if you need it), but you’ll be surprised just how much text can fit in that kind of space. If you are a student, you could probably fit years and years worth of papers into those 2 gb. This solution is probably best for those who keep their writing projects in discreet files and folders, however there are some of us who use programs like Scrivener as their primary writing tool and because these programs actually save dozens or even hundreds of small documents in a bundle, working directly out of the Dropbox folder can be problematic.
I’m lucky, because my program of choice, Scrivener, actually has a simply backup command what will put my whole project into a zip file and save it in any folder I choose. So lately I’ve been creating the habit of selecting that command whenever I finish working on a project. I figure that maybe once a month I’ll cull the folder from some of the older backups, but in the meantime, I just backup and enjoy the knowledge that even if something happens to my computer or my Time Machine disk or my regularly updated disk clone that I could still get access to the stories and projects I’m currently working on. Additionally, I may, on of these days, get around to creating an Automator action that will regularly zip certain folders and then place the zip file in my Dropbox folder.
If you aren’t working with huge amounts of research and with programs like Scrivener, I would suggest just saving all your documents to your Dropbox folder and feeling secure that you have a safe and up-to-date backup of your current or most important work . . . and all without giving it a second thought. Having a strategy like this is especially important if you have only one computer and don’t really pay attention to backing up on a regular basis (ahem – yes, I’m looking at you).
Go over to the Dropbox website and check it out, look at the tour and check out the video presentation. If you decide to sign up and you use this link to do so you’ll actually get both of us an additional 250 mb of storage space but I’m not posting this to get people signing up under my account (though it would be nice). I think there are a few of my friends and acquaintances out there who could use this service and save themselves some possible headaches down the line.
If you have thoughts about Dropbox or backing up documents in general, I’d love to read them, so drop a comment if you have the time.