Writing Starts with Organizing

Before other pantsers get up in arms about today’s blog title, let me reassure them: I am not talking about outlining today.

I’m still a diehard, let’s-dive-into-this-project-to-see-where-it-goes pantser, so no one needs to panic that I’m about to wax rhapsodic about the beauties of creating an outline before writing a story.

Today, I’m talking about something that is writing-adjacent but absolutely critical. And, too often, overlooked. I’m talking about having one’s computer (or notebooks, if you write by hand) organized and knowing how to restore them should something unthinkable happen.

I worked for nearly seven years as a project manager, and a large part of surviving that job was being organized and knowing how to access my data. In that job, I had a spreadsheet for each account I handled where I tracked all of the projects I was managing for that client. I dutifully checked each new construction schedule and updated my spreadsheet. I also called my installers weekly to check on their work and wrote notes on each project’s Manila folder outlining the key points from that week’s call.

That level of organization led to me becoming the department trainer to help new project managers learn our system.

I know that level of organization often does not come easily or naturally to everyone. In particular, creative types find the process of getting organized both daunting and uncomfortable. And, it’s those folks who I think most need an organizational strategy to protect their data.

For the past year and a half, I’ve worked as a tech-support assistant for a small software company. And, at least once or twice a week, I’ll pick up a help ticket from a user who is in a panic because they’ve had some kind of computer error that resulted in lost work.

Too often, these users haven’t taken basic steps to protect their computers and their work, which means we’re unable to rescue their data.

Now, I am not a computer expert by any stretch of the imagination. I do not have a computer science degree, nor any specialized training.

But, in the time I’ve been working this job, I’ve seen a few common causes of data loss that could be easily remedied with just a little preparation. And, it would result in a better outcome for these help tickets.

Issue 1: Not Knowing How Their Data Is Stored

With the rise of the Internet and so many companies pushing the idea of cloud storage, I find that many people simply don’t know where their data is stored. And, it’s easy to understand why that’s the case.

Companies like Microsoft and Apple are threading their cloud-syncing programs like OneDrive and iCloud Drive more deeply into the operating system, which often results in the user’s data being stored to a cloud-syncing service by default.

Programs like OneNote, Evernote, Apple Pages, and Word tend to default to storing all of the user’s work to either the user’s cloud storage or the company’s servers. While this can be convenient in some cases, I personally think it lulls users into believing that all of their data is automatically stored to a cloud drive. And, that isn’t the case.

Some computer programs still take an old-school approach and store the user’s data to their local hard drive as a default.

These programs might default to opening the user’s work automatically when the program is launched, which can be a handy way for a user to get working faster. But, it risks the user not really knowing where their data is. If they have a crash or an issue, they don’t know where to turn.

If a user is like me, they might have dozens of programs on their computers but really only use a handful on a regular basis. If that’s you, please take the time to review the documentation for the programs you use most often. Make sure you know if your data is stored to a cloud server or locally.

And, please be sure you know the basic steps the company suggests for rescuing your data in the event of a theft or loss. Have a plan in place in case the worst happens. If you have your work in a few different computer programs or a mix of handwritten and computerized files, put together a plan for how you’ll restore your handwritten materials too.

If you’re the kind of person whose computer files are usually disorganized, please take the time to impose a little structure on your computer. This can be as simple as ensuring that all of the data you’ve created is stored within your computer’s Documents folder.

Both the Mac and Windows PC provide this folder as a part of the operating system. It’s assumed that the bulk of the user-created data will be stored in this folder, which is why most backup programs and cloud-syncing services default to including that Documents folder in their settings.

If you tend to store your work wherever on your computer or keep important files on your Desktop, this might be time to rethink that strategy. Often, the Desktop is a high-traffic area used by your computer’s operating system for temporary storage as it’s writing your files.

Some programs are fine with having your data stored to the Desktop while others aren’t. The better option is storing your work in Documents and placing shortcuts to your files on the Desktop.

Within your Documents folder, you can create additional folders to separate your writing projects from your banking statements. Even if organization isn’t your strength, setting up folders for different categories can help you locate your important files in a crisis.

Issue 2: The Computer or Software Crash

One of the most common causes of data losses we see at work is the user’s computer or their software crashing due to bad computing habits.

Certainly, modern computers are more stable and reliable than their predecessors. In fact, some of the computer companies—like Apple—claim that users don’t need to power down their computers anymore.

While that might be the marketing claim, the reality of both Macs and Windows PCs is that many operating system updates (and even updates to security programs and other software) require the computer to power down or reboot to complete the installation.

Powering a computer down every couple of weeks or so can also allow the RAM to clear its cache and force-quit any programs hanging in the background. Those kinds of background cleanup processes can reduce the chance of the computer or the program crashing while being used.

Some users are in the habit of leaving their writing programs always open in the background so that they can quickly jump into it while working on other stuff if an idea strikes.

While that’s a great productivity idea, some software won’t fully write the user’s data to their files while the program is open. Or, a computer update might cause the computer to reboot while their data is only held in the short-term RAM. That can result in data loss.

A good practice is to close out key programs at the end of the day and before having the computer power down or enter sleep mode.

Yes, I know that’s counter to what the hardware and software companies claim, but I hate confrontation. Plus, it hurts my heart to tell someone that I can’t restore the months of work they’ve done on their computer because they didn’t allow their software to save correctly.

If you truly value your work, please let your software and computer fully shut down from time to time to ensure that it all continues working correctly.

Issue 3: The Stolen or Damaged Computer

Let’s face it, Murphy’s Law is real. Having a computer stolen, damaged by a spilled beverage, knocked off a desk, or dropped is a real threat. And, those possibilities could all result in data loss if the user’s only copy of their data is on their computer.

Some industry experts claim, “Data is only secure if it’s stored in three different places.”

I’m not quite sure I’d go that far, but I do believe that users need their most important data stored in more than one place.

I’m on a Mac, so I use Apple’s built-in Time Machine tool to constantly back my Mac up to an external hard drive when I’m working from home.

Admittedly, that external hard drive isn’t a perfect solution. Like my Mac, it could be stolen or suffer damage from a liquid. It could even have a manufacturing flaw and crash like my computer’s internal hard drive. But, it is an additional level of protection and a good first step.

I’m also the kind of person that periodically saves my most important files to a USB thumb drive that I store in a fire safe here at home. Again, that USB could have a flaw, be stolen or lost, and so on. But, it’s another way to have my work protected.

Since starting my tech-support job and seeing how truly vulnerable computers can be, I’ve added two additional methods for protecting my work.

I periodically make a copy of my data that I compress into a ZIP file and store either to my Dropbox account or my iCloud Drive. (Jen and I share the iCloud Drive storage as a part of an Apple+ family membership, and I pay for Dropbox for work-related materials.)

This job has taught me that services like Dropbox, iCloud Drive, OneDrive, and others aren’t truly a backup service. Instead, they’re designed as a cloud-syncing service with the aim of having the user’s data accessible from multiple computers.

While that’s a handy tool for people on the go, it’s not a true backup service for the data. That is, if a user is working on a document in OneDrive on one computer and accidentally deletes a huge chunk of data, that huge chunk of data will also go missing on every other computer accessing that centrally stored document.

Now that I understand that difference, I’ve also added Backblaze to my Mac and Jen’s. That way, we have a full and automated backup process storing our data offsite. In the event that we ever have a catastrophe that affects our computers, we have options for recovering that data that isn’t locally stored.

None of this is an exhaustive list of things that could go wrong nor of options for securing one’s critical files. I hope, though, that it will give some folks a chance to think about their most critical computer data and ensure they have options for restoring it.

Photo by Seyed Sina Fazeli on Unsplash

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