Basics of writing

Writer vs. computer–Part 1

From Rick:

While this blog is mostly about writing and things related thereto, this post is not an article on the basic types of story conflict: man vs. self, man vs. man vs. society, etc., although man vs. machine is one of them. No, it’s not that. We do talk from time to time about the various tools a writer can use, and foremost among those tools is the computer.

Most—but not all—writers have migrated from pencil and paper and typewriters to the computer and its more recent tablet incarnation. But some writers still prefer to begin with the most basic tools. Sometimes there’s no substitute for pencil and paper since very little can go wrong other than your pen running out of ink or your pencil breaking.

Computers have, for the most part, made writers’ lives easier, because they no longer have to retype the whole page to make corrections to it. But we all know that the more complex something is and the more parts it has, the greater the chances of something breaking down or going wrong. New features mean more to learn, but they also more flexibility.

I thought an article on some of the problems and potential solutions with our computers might be helpful.

The first thing I feel obligated to say is that if you’re going to be a writer—and unless you have a ton of money to pay other people to do the work beyond the actual writing—then you need to learn how to use a computer, and you need to learn how to use it beyond the basics. Learn how to use spell check and grammar check. Learn how to set up your manuscript so it doesn’t look like an amateurish mess. Learn how to organize your files. Learn how to protect your files from getting lost or corrupted (which is the subject of the bulk of this post. Learn how to solve problems that arise, or at least where to go to find the answers.

You don’t need to be a technical wizard, but you cannot claim you aren’t a technical person and ignore these things. Knowing how to use the features of Word set up your document or how to use the spelling checker or search functions do not qualify as “technical” things. These are as basic as knowing how to change a radio station on your car radio or how to adjust the heater or the seats. “Technical” means getting under the hood of the car (or into the guts of the computer). You don’t need those skills to be a driver or a writer.

There was a time when we considered electric tyepwriters, microwaves, VCRs, CD players, digital cameras—and cell phones—“too technical,” yet we learned how to use these just fine. Computers are very complex pieces of electronics, but we don’t need to know how they work, only how to use them. Being a writer means knowing how to use the expected tools of writing, and if you aren’t willing to learn how to use your computer and word processing software, then you need to learn before you start writing or you’ll end up with a lot of problems.

Always remember this: Google (or whichever search engine you prefer) is your friend. Chances are extremely good that if you have a problem, someone (and probably more than one someone) has already encountered it and solved it. All you need to do is look it up.

If you’re not willing to learn the proper use of your writing tools, then don’t expected to be treated like a serious writer.

End of that sopabox…

The first problem you’re likely to face with your computer is loss of files either through a computer or hard drive crash (they’re not always the same). Either one can leave you with corrupted or lost files. While Word and Windows do their best to protect you, things can happen. No serious writer can afford to lose valuable files.

Always be sure you manually save your file periodically. Case in point: I had some sort of minor glitch a few days ago where a file save to my USB drive somehow aborted. I have Word set to save every ten minutes, so all I lost were those last ten minutes of edits. I have no idea what caused it, and there was no way to restore it. The only thing that saved me from it being a major loss was the ten-minute backup setting.

One program I use frequently does not have any automatic backup saves, so I have to be sure I save y work periodically. I’ve lost enough work with that program just ecause I didn’t save often enough.

The number one way to protect yourself from this disaster is to have a BACKUP. And I don’t mean a copy elsewhere on your computer’s hard drive. You need a backup copy on a separate device from wherever you keep the main file. “I’ve got that covered,” you say. “I always keep a backup of my files on a USB drive.”

Do you backup after you’re done for the day? If you don’t then you could lose any changes since that last backup. And are you aware that USB drives can and do fail—frequently. I’ve had two fail on me (both good brand names). Someone I know had some pictures he’d taken in Italy on a USB drive that he kept in his desk and hadn’t touched it, but the next time he tried to access it, the drive had failed.

Fortunately, we found a data recovery service that was able to restore it, but it was something like $60 with shipping, with no guarantee that it would still work after being shipped back unless we paid extra for transfer to a new USB drive or a cloud drive. We didn’t opt for that and it did arrive usable. I immediately copied the files from it because they’d had to break the case open to work on it. We were lucky because some media may not be recoverable or it may be very expensive. Recovering a corrupted hard drive can cost hundreds of dollars and even then it may not be possible to recover everything.

Moral: Do NOT rely on a USB drive as your only backup storage! At least use two.

There are many ways to backup files, and the kind of backups you should keep depends on how many files you have. Any backup media can fail. This why you need at two or more backups, for safety. And never backup to your main hard drive because if that goes bad, you lose those backups as well.

Having a backup is semi-useless if it’s not current. Each type of backup has advantages and drawbacks, which is why you should have more than one. I have three different backups on two different drives, but a natural disaster that destroyed my home would render all of my backups worthless.

At least one backup of your important files should therefore be kept offsite. Cloud storage (like Google drive) is cheap (but up to 15GB is free), and it means you don’t have to frequently transport a copy of your key files to another location. But you still need to ensure the backups are current. Cloud storage does require Internet access, although some services will deliver the files on physical media if necessary.

An external hard drive is an excellent backup device. I have one, as well as a second internal drive in my PC. My external drive (Western Digital) comes with software that automatically backs up all new and changed files automatically in real time (but I have to save the file first before the software sees it as something to backup. The software will also backup to the Cloud (such as Google Drive). But it doesn’t delete old files that I’ve erased from the PC. That can be a boon if you need an old file you accidentally deleted (I’ve needed to do that a couple of times.). It also means you will have a lot of extra and old files if you need to restore a backup, but that’s a minor inconvenience versus the complete loss of your files.

On my second internal hard drive I keep backups of key folders on my PC (documents, music, picture). If your use an email program like Outlook, Thunderbird, or Windows Live Mail, be sure the mail folders are in your backup as well.

I also keep copies of all software I’ve downloaded and put on the PC. If your PC crashes, you may have to reinstall all your software on your new or repaired PC (you cannot simply copy the software back to it). Some months ago my main hard drive failed, and it took me most of a weekend to put everything back. I had most (but not all) files recently backed up (but not my email). I strongly recommend keeping a printed list of installed programs on your PC so you know what to reload. Also, if you save copies of the software, be sure to keep it up to date with the latest versions. Yes, I know this is a lot of work, but it’s a lot more work if you have to find the updates online. Trust me, I know from experience.

Another backup I recommend is a Windows Image File saved to a backup drive. This file will exceed 100 gigabytes, and probably more if you have a lot of pictures, videos, and games on your PC, so the drive will need to be larger than that. A second hard drive is ideal for this, preferably an external one.

For those unfamiliar with the Windows Image File, this is basically an image of everything on your PC, including Windows and all installed programs—which means you don’t have to reinstall anything if you can restore your system from a Windows Image file. You create an image file in Windows using Backup and Restore in Control Panel.

However, this only helps if you’re replacing your hard drive or restoring to a comparable PC. You cannot save a Windows 7 image file and put it on a new PC with Windows 10, and you cannot extract parts of the image file to recover individual lost files. If you only had the image file as your backup, you would have to load the whole image file onto a PC, copy your critical data files, then elsewhere.

Even if you keep a Windows Image File, you will still need to keep backup copies of all your files. The reason is that an Image File, aside from being large, takes a long type to save it (around an hour). This makes it impractical to use it as a full backup of all files. Once you’ve restored the Image File, you will need to restore your latest backups of your files. While this sounds complicated, it’s not, and it’s a lot less time consuming than having to reload all your software, redo all your custom software settings (including possibly setting up your email program all over) AND reload your files. I’m talking the difference between a few hours as opposed to a couple of days or more of work.

When making backup files, what’s the best way to do that if you don’t have software with your backup drive? There are a number of free and pay-for programs out there that backup in real time, but some of them have drawbacks (like slowing down your PC).

One program I use is Allway Sync. There’s a free version that works for a moderate number of files and a pay-for version (but not much) that allows unlimited file copying. This program doesn’t allow you to pick and choose sub-folders in a given folder, just copies the entire folder and all sub-folders, but that’s enough for most. You can set up multiple jobs for backing up. You have to manually start the backup job(s). I do this every weekend, but keep in mind that I do have the external hard drive backing up in real time.

One thing I like about Allway Sync is that it allows me the option of deleting files in the backup that I’ve deleted from my PC. That way, those backups are current and contain no older files. Also, you can use Allway Sync to do a backup to Google drive. Just keep in mind that this can take some time, depending on your Internet speed, if you have a lot of files.

The bottom line is that you have to determine how many and what types of backup you want to do, but please don’t rely on just one or on a single USB drive. Make sure you’re protected if one backup fails.

Next time I’ll explore some other computer problems that writers might face and what to do about them.