Recently, I’ve read a Tweet of someone who had lost all of their writing progress because of a computer fault. This is probably one of the most frustrating things that can occur to you as a writer, even more than not getting your novel done.
But I am here today to propose a solution to this problem. The last time I lost some data, was way back then when I forgot to charge my Nintendo DS. THAT was frustrating, especially if you’ve just beaten that previously thought unbeatable boss. But luckily that didn’t occur that many times afterwards since I developed the habit of saving after each and every bit of new progress that I didn’t want to loose. And I kept this habit to this day. Now when I write, the keys I hit the most are Ctrl and S. Pretty much after every paragraph. That helps if your PC suddenly crashes, freezes or otherwise looses it, but it doesn’t help you if your PC one day decides to pass on. If that happens to you, you want to have an up-to-date backup ready so that you can continue without having lost any of your hard work. And while there are ways to restore data from a PC that refuses to turn on, I’m not going to go into that since if you have to rely on data recovery, you already failed to backup. So here’s what I’m doing to prevent any data loss.
I’m using a technology called source control. It originates from software development and is designed to keep a record of changes of your files. It works best with source code you write to build software, but it works with pretty much anything that is not taking an excessive amount of storage space such as videos. As for writing, source control works wonder with text. The features it offers is the ability to store all of your writing files server-side, restore the state of your work of any point in the past and it’s free. The question that remains is how you can set up source control to use for your own.
First of all, you need two things: A client on your PC and a server-side service to have your files stored at a remote location in case your machine starts burning.
I’m keeping it simple and won’t go into the technical details, but if you want to research on your own, the implementation of source control I’m using is called git. I believe it’s the most commonly used.
So, as for the git client, I’m proposing you choose Sourcetree. It’s free and has a simple user interface. Perfect for writers that do not have any technical background.
For the service, I recommend GitLab. It’s also free and you can host any number of your own private repositories. And to answer the question what a repository is: Think of it as a folder that contains all of your files you want to backup.
Setting up Source Control
To get your own repository up and running, you need to download Sourcetree and install it. Since the installation is not rocket science, I’ll skip the explanation. Look it up if you need to.
After that, you create an account on GitLab. Then you click on the new project button. If you can’t find it, click here. Enter a project name, make sure visibility is set to private and click create. On the project’s details page, you click on “clone” at the top right and copy the “https” link. If you can’t find it, then copy the link from your browser’s url bar and add “.git” to the end. It should look like this: “https://gitlab.com/Username/ProjectName.git”. Then, you open Sourcetree and hit the “+” at the top to open a new tab. Then click on “clone”. Paste the link in the first field and make sure that the folder of the path below is either empty or does not exist, otherwise you’ll get an error message. If you’re not sure, click “browse”, create a new folder and choose that one. Enter your credentials for your GitLab account when asked and you’re done. Now, you can place your writing files into your new local repository folder.
Backing up your files
To then actually backup your files, you open SourceTree and click the “commit” button at the top left. You then see a list of your files that have been added. Just click “Stage All”. Then, you write a descriptive message in the bottom text field saying want you did. “Initial commit.” is perfectly valid for your first commit. And to answer the question what a commit is: Think of it as the state of work at the point in time you’re committing. Then after you typed the message, make sure to check the box below and hit “commit” on the bottom right. If you now click on Branches on the left side bar and on master, you can see your commit. When you click on it, it shows you the changes since the last one. At the bottom, you can see a list of files that have been added, changed or removed. That’s all. The files are already backed up on the GitLab servers and if your machine breaks, you can just take your new machine and follow the steps above beginning with hitting the clone button.
The workflow for the future will looks like this: You do a writing session. After you’re done, you go to SourceTree and do a commit. A descriptive message of what you did will help tremendously if you want to find the commit later. After your commit, your files are backed up and you can continue your day without worries.
Other benefits of Source Control
Here are some additional features you can use if you need them:
If you realize that you accidentally deleted an entire chapter twenty days ago and didn’t notice, you go to your master Branch and look for the last commit before you deleted the chapter. Click on it and have a look at your file list. Right click on your manuscript and click “Open Selected Version”. Then, your manuscript from twenty days ago opens and you can copy out your deleted chapter and paste it into your current version. Don’t forget to commit after that.
You can also exclude certain files from showing up in the commits, such as temporary files that are created when you open a document. If that’s what you want, lookup “gitignore” on the web for detailed instructions. You can also include the name of your program (MSWord, LibreOffice) in your search to get results specific to your files.
You also have many many more options such as reverting back to an old commit or temporarily restoring an old commit to work with those files. You can even have multiple people use the same repository and work together. But if you’re interested in any of that, just lookup how to use git. Just expect it to be about source code and apply your gained knowledge to your writing needs.
So, now you’re properly equipped for the next meltdown of your computer! Next time it happens, you can lean back on your chair and smile comfortably, knowing that your files are save. Just don’t breath in the smoke.