Challenge,  On Writing

An Obvious Topic…

So Obvious I Never Think to Talk About It…

Back up your work.

That’s the topic and I have told the story many times of how I wrote a short story per week from January 1st 1982 onward and sold some of those. But I have no copies of any of them except the ones that were published, or in the mail at the time, because in May of 1985 my house burnt down, and since I was working on a typewriter, I lost most of those stories and the two novels I had written.

Seeing two novels you wrote as nothing but piles of flaked ash is not something you ever want to experience.

And I lost a large number of poems I had written as well. I have a few copies of the poems I published. The fact that I was able to go back to writing after that kind of loss of work tells you just how driven I am. But getting back to writing took most of a year. Just couldn’t see the point because back then I still thought the final story was more important than the actual writing process.

So how in this modern world do you back up your writing?

I would imagine there are as many ways as writers, so what I am going to detail here are the basics of what you need to do to have it totally safe.



1… Back up to some secondary source as you work on a project. I back up to a thumb drive and carry it in my pocket at all times.



2… Back up to something LIKE A THUMB DRIVE you can physically walk out of the building that very hour and store away from your home or writing office. Take it to your day job and toss it in the back of a drawer or something.

3… Print out a paper copy. (Do not wait until it is proofed, just do it at once.) Most of our print copies go to files in our office away from our writing offices and much of it right now is in a storage unit five miles away.

4… Back up to a cloud storage source of some sort. Do this at once as well.

5… Back it up as well to a second computer, even if the computer is an old one still just running for storage. If you don’t have one, go buy a used one cheap just for storage. Replace the old computer yearly.



6… Back up ALL of your writing onto two thumb drives. Put one in an off-site storage, keep the other in your pocket or purse. I actually carry two full back-ups of all my writing on new thumb drives in my pocket. One I put in our office. Every month I replace both out with brand new 32G drives with every word I have written since I got to computers in 1987.

Of course, WMG Publishing has copies of all my published work as well and have back-up storage there as well, but I don’t count that at all. Not in my control.


In other words, I treat my writing like it has immense value and I back it up all the time.

Anything less than those six steps done in one way or another and you are not doing it right. If you think those steps take too much time, what does that say about your opinion of your own work???


Do all six steps, control them all yourself, and you won’t lose years of your work and take another year to recover, if you ever do.

And then after you are doing that, make sure one or two trusted people in your family know what you are doing and how to find your back-ups and then, if you are really smart, talk with someone about how you want your writing handled if something happens to you. You know, like Covid. Or a speeding bus.

But get everything backed up as I outlined above in one form or another. And don’t write me and tell me why I don’t need to do one or two of those steps UNLESS you have lost 150 short stories and two novels in a fire. Then we can talk.



  • Thomas E

    Nice list.

    I have an additional backup email that I set up with a host in a different continent. I email my writing folder from my main email to my backup every day.

    I don’t just save my story in a proprietary format like .docx or .pages. I save a copy in an open format such as .rtf (stories don’t spoil but in practice document formats do. That .pages file might not be readable in a decade).

  • Amy

    I’m glad you brought this up because although I back up to an external hard drive I still have concerns.

    I’d rather back up to a cloud as well but I thought you had concerns about cloud storage T&Cs (copyright)?

    And I’d rather store back-ups away from my home but I don’t work and don’t have other premises – not even a garden with a shed, or a car. Here in the UK it seems to be impossible to get bank storage unless you live in London.

    • dwsmith

      Amy, for a few decades we lived on the Oregon coast, where the weather never got really hot or cold, so I had glove boxes in my cars full of thumb drives and before thumb drives floppy disks. But here in Vegas would never think to put one in a glove box. Only way I lost one in a car on a coastal climate was I had put a few in the area near cup holders and spilled some soda on them. (grin) But I had so many ways of backing up, I didn’t lose anything of course.

  • Nathan Haines

    Personally, I run a Nextcloud server that backs up everything the moment I hit save. (Actually, I run *two* such servers, on different hosts.) Then when I boot up a different computer or hard drive, all changes are synchronized and the server itself keeps a copy of any changes I made in the last some odd days. A month at least. I love it, no matter what kind of hassle it is to set up and maintain. That takes care of cloud copies.

    My career as a computer technician started 26 years ago. I’m quite happy and comfortable with my own cloud storage solution which also synchronizes to add up to multiple, up-to-date copies. And yet…

    I have also worked for harddrive manufacturers. And everything Dean says: keep an original and TWO SEPARATE BACKUP COPIES IN DIFFERENT PHYSICAL LOCATIONS is literally the least I’d advise anyone who called in and asked.

    And sure enough, a few friends get copies of my works to read and kibitz back on (mostly just egregious spelling errors–they’re on board with the no revision thing) and a couple others are nice enough to run the Nextcloud sync client on their computers to provide me with an extra backup.

    Hard drives are (traditionally) mechanical devices, and all fail. (Solid-state drives are amazing and clever, but just fail in more clever ways.) It’s my professional opinion that everything Dean said is both valid and insightful. If you have no interest at all in delving into the technical “why” details, then his advice is very slightly overkill and yet incredibly practical.

    There’s room to quibble over details. Do you need to get a junker computer for backup to replace every year? Well, yes, if you do as Dean says. But if you pick up a Raspberry Pi 2, 3, or 4 for $25-$60 and install Nextcloud on it, then no, just copy the SD card it boots from and swap that out every 6-12 months. Of course, that requires a certain level of technical knowledge….

    Have no idea what I just said? Then Dean’s advice will protect you, with no further thought or worry, against the vast majority of calamities that might befall any computer or data storage that protects your work.

    So as a computer expert with addtional years of experience in the storage industry: do what Dean says. Make it a routine, a habit, and you’ll almost certainly never have to worry about any kind of data loss again.

    • dwsmith

      Nathan, let me simply say, “Thank you.” You might have just saved someone a massive amount of loss.

    • C.E. Petit

      Nathan’s advice is generally good enough. But as Columbo said (I’m older than Nathan; I’ve been working computer security and building computers since before there was an Apple II+, and have the soldering scars to prove it), just one more thing:

      Store those backup files in a completely-vendor-neutral format. I prefer RTF (which can include all formatting and foreign characters, and can in a pinch be read in a plain-text editor), but a straight-HTML file or even pure plain text will do. Here’s why:

      Once upon a time, FamousWriter A backed up all of his files using his default word processor. FamousWriter A was an “early adopter,” and used the same word processor as his academic spouse: XyWrite. A few years later, FamousWriter A’s house suffered a similar fate to Our Gracious Host’s house — consider it a visit from Montag. (Which it may well have been, but that’s for another time.) Fortunately, all of the 5 1/4″ floppies stored offsite were available!

      Unfortunately, XyWrite’s file format was not… quite… the same as WordStar 3.x, which itself was very difficult to read by 200x, when I was asked to assist with the file recoveries. Fortunately, I still had a machine that read the floppies, and a conversion script that recovered all of the formatted text. (It even recovered all of the spouse’s files with footnotes.) Had the files been stored as RTF — a DoD format specified in the 1980s, so it’s not going anywhere any time soon — there would have been one fewer bit of frustration.

      • dwsmith

        Everything C.E. said, 110%

        Also having everything indie published and out to the world in electronic and paper formats is a hell of a back-up not available in the old days as well. (grin)

  • Mary Jo Rabe

    Thank you for the reminder and all the tips! I already do most of this as I am slightly obsessive about protecting my writng, but you mentioned a few things that I hadn’t thought of and will now implement. I only have problems with the idea of making and storing print copies (finding a place to store them).

  • James Palmer

    Good advice, Dean. A fire may or may not happen, but your laptop’s hard drive crapping out is inevitable. And recovering those lost files costs big bucks. A monthly subscription to Carbonite is a wise investment.

  • Eli Jones

    Aside from #3 I’ve got a very similar backup strategy. Flash drive on my keychain for my writing files, another copy on a USB disk at work (now that I’m back to working in the office), backup to OneDrive, backup to the network attached storage at home (mirroring OneDrive), files mirrored between my writing desktop and my laptop. My wife and I had a hard drive with important files in a safety deposit box but for obvious reasons we haven’t swapped that one out in about a year. Should get on that.

    But no paper copies. Pretty bad oversight on my part. Guess it’s time to invest in a laser printer!

    And I recommend something like BackBlaze for cloud backups if you have tons of files. My wife is a freelance photographer/graphic designer, so there’s terabytes of data to back up. Their service makes it easy to back up and recover hard drives and USB storage.

    • dwsmith

      Never would think of backing up a computer system. All my writing is in word files. I just back up the word files regularly and also every year I spend a bunch of time opening every file to see if it is still good in that format, and update the format. Remember, I also have paper copies. A few times over the decades I didn’t get a format moved soon enough and had someone retype in the story. That happened with my first published novel. Wrote it in 1987 on a computer, printed it out fine, thought I had saved the document, but the formats back then were changing so fast, I didn’t get it moved up format quickly enough, so thirty years later I had to have it typed back in. It was typed back in from the Warner edition, not my paper manuscript copies which I still have in storage. That book was the only book I ever wrote on anything but a Mac.

    • Amy

      Is there a difference between a cloud service and something like Dropbox? Are there copyright concerns about their T&Cs?

      • Nathan Haines

        “The Cloud” means “someone else’s computer.” That’s all. (There’s nuance and details but they don’t matter.)

        While you should always read the terms and conditions for any service you use, I don’t think I can recall any cloud file storage or cloud file synchronization service that has copyright issues. In any case, generally they’re just storing your files and giving you access. No different than putting a banker box full of printouts into a self-storage facility.

  • B Litchfield

    Interestingly, in the mid 80s, before cloud and thumb drives, when writing was done on manual typewriters, authors would mail out their one and only manuscript for submissions (so I’ve heard). I would’ve at least gotten it photocopied if I’d been writing back then. Probably easier than dealing with carbon copies.

    • dwsmith

      Carbons. Photo copies were only a short time, expensive and hard to get. Carbons for electric typewriter.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Thank you for the timely PSA. There is another way to lose stories, one which I have experienced before: Using another story as a template because it has the right layout – and not saving it as a separate document. After I tried to sell a story, got the sale, and then discovered the story gone, I stopped recycling my formatting layout and set up a template file.
    Also, I rewrote the story for that magazine, kicking myself before and after.
    This is, apparently, not unusual. I have run into writes (tech-savvy, organized ones) who said, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that.”