Ahh, spring. A time of renewal and new beginnings. A time of budding plants, fragrant flowers, and sunshine.
A time of cleaning everything in sight.
For many of us, spring means spring cleaning—the one time of year we actually get off our butts and try to make a dent in the mess we’ve made the rest of the year. Something about spring just triggers the desire for a fresh start, and gets us to actually try to tidy up, wash the windows, declutter some stuff, and vacuum that scary space behind the fridge.
But as an author, you actually have a more important area to do some spring cleaning: your files.
Let’s face it: authors tend to be hoarders. Not necessarily in the Collyer brothers “crushed to death by newspapers” sense, but definitely in the sense that we collect interesting articles that might someday be useful in a book, or 18 versions of the first draft of the book we scrapped six years ago.
And although hard drive space is dirt-cheap these days, that’s kind of part of the problem—it makes it really easy to hoard all those files and never give it another thought. Right up until the moment you’re actually trying to find something.
So instead of focusing on bleaching the grout in the bathroom for your spring cleaning binge this year, how about giving your files a thorough going-over?
Prioritize and Purge
The hardest part of spring cleaning your files is getting started. Odds are, there’s a lot there—my laptop hard drive, for instance, has 16Gb free out of 500Gb total. And 211Gb of that is “other,” meaning documents and work files, not movies or photos.
A lot of these files are likely things I don’t need anymore—old drafts of documents I’ve since submitted, projects from three years ago, and copies of copies of documents I haven’t looked at since I set the computer up.
When you have plenty of storage space, it’s really easy to just tuck everything away “in case you need it.” But that leads to filling up the ol’ hard drive—which in turn slows down your computer’s performance and makes it hard to find anything you actually do need.
So it’s best to regularly audit your files. Be ruthless. Get rid of anything that you haven’t opened or referenced in a certain period of time—say, six months or a year. If it’s something important that you might need down the road, like your tax return in PDF format, then by all means, keep it. But if it’s the pre-draft of the interstellar cowboy-ninja romance you started writing almost a decade ago and never finished…well, maybe it’s time to let go.
This is where prioritizing comes into play. There might be a draft of that book you do want to keep, but all your early revisions aren’t necessary. For my part, I have one folder that contains 37 revisions of a book cover I designed…as well as all the various image files that I was working with to create those versions.
The final cover, mind you, uses about six elements. But the folder is crammed full of stuff that never saw the light of day and likely never will (some of those 37 versions were awful).
So really, I can keep a few of the revisions and elements that I like, just in case I want to do something similar in the future, and get rid of all the rest of it. If some of the elements might be useful down the road, I can move them to another folder of graphic design elements, then clear out that book’s cover design folder and purge most of the contents.
In one fell swoop, I just got rid of nearly half a gig of junk that was just cluttering up my computer.
Man, that feels good!
One of the worst offenders of computer clutter is duplicate files—something you’ve copied or downloaded twice or an image that you saved to two different folders before you started forming better filing habits.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to track down and purge those files. If you’re using Windows, you can use built-in tools from Windows Explorer to sort your files—organizing by size often helps you find duplicates that might have different names.
If you’re on a Mac, you can do something similar by searching in Finder > All My Files and sorting by size, or using some other helpful Finder and Terminal techniques to hunt down the offending duplicates.
Of course, all of this takes time and energy that could better be spent writing. So consider spending a couple of bucks and downloading a handy duplicate-finder app to take the sting out of purging your unwanted files. There are some great ones available for both Windows and Mac.
Organize and Access
While you’re purging, you may find things you want to save, but not in their original location—like those cover design elements of mine mentioned above.
This is where the Organize and Access phase of data cleaning comes in.
If you’re like a lot of folks, you have something vaguely resembling a filing system on your computer. Maybe you have a Documents folder that contains sub-folders for all your book projects, then sub-sub-folders for, say, cover design and drafts and layouts.
Maybe you organize things by date, or by category of file (photos, movies, books, etc.).
It doesn’t matter what system you choose, as long as you find one that works for you and you stick to it.
But what you definitely need to do is to be specific and consistent—the more specific and consistent, the better. Switching filing systems only works if you can reorganize all your files, and having any filing system at all only works if you can find what you’re looking for inside it!
So starting today, pick a naming system for your files and then pick an organizing system and stick with it. The next time you’re sitting down to binge-watch a show on Netflix, fire up the computer and sort some files according to the new system. It’ll go faster than you think!
Using a date-descriptor system works well for a lot of folks. For instance, in my cover design files, I use the following format:
So that’s the date created, the title of the book, the type of work, and the version number. At a glance, I know exactly what file is the most recent, what version I’m on, what the project is, etc.
I then file that away in a series of folders that let me know exactly what I’m looking at. So here, we’ve got:
Documents > Work Files > Books > Blank Novel > Cover Design > 5-23-2017_Blank cover_v28.jpg
I can find just about whatever I’m looking for with only a little effort. Again, the key is to be clear and consistent: whatever system you pick, apply it to every file you have. It’ll make finding things much easier!
As writers, we do a lot of research and take a lot of notes. Those files can add up—and make your bookmarks bar really unwieldy.
Now, if you love marking down your research in your browser, don’t let me stop you! But try applying the same principles you just used on your computer files to all the clippings you’ve been hoarding for your next book. Create detailed, specific folders in your browser bookmarks and sort your bookmarked sites and articles into those for easy retrieval.
But remember, websites can change or vanish. So if there’s an article you really need for your work, consider saving it as a PDF and filing it away on your computer hard drive, using your consistent and clear personal filing system.
This will also let you integrate scanned newspaper articles, magazine clippings, notes taken from books, and so on with your web research. Trust me, it’s incredibly convenient to have all those sources in one neatly labeled location when you sit down to work on the chapter!
To help you stay on top of all those notes and all that research, consider switching your writing platform to Scrivener. This is a super-powerful all-in-one organization and writing tool that’s made just to help out writers.
It’s a little expensive, especially if you’re used to using whatever word processor came with your computer, but it pays back your investment incredibly quickly with how much time and energy it’ll save you when organizing your notes and writing.
For each project, create a Binder to save everything. Drop your neatly organized notes into a Research folder in that binder and prepare to be amazed. In the Scrivener sidebar, you’ll now be able to create a draft, organize it by section, review your research notes, and even tag those research notes in Inspector mode for even easier searching!
You can even label different files and sections of your work with status updates like “to do” or “first draft,” or with custom statuses like “add more background” or “revise character voice.”
Of course, no discussion of how to organize and access your files would be complete without mentioning Evernote!
While Scrivener is a powerful all-in-one tool for writing research, Evernote makes a very useful companion to your everyday information explorations—and a good backup for all your notes.
The free version is perfectly adequate for most folks, but the paid version adds some very handy features and gives you a lot more storage space. With Evernote, you can sort your web clips and your scanned articles and other notes into Notebooks and add tags for easy searching. It can even recognize handwriting and make it searchable!
Evernote is even more powerful when you combine it with a good document scanner for all those offline research notes you take. Portable scanners with WiFi and Evernote integration have become pretty affordable, and they let you scan in photos, documents, and more, even creating searchable PDFs that automatically upload to Dropbox or Evernote for you. Talk about simplifying your file organization!
Back It Up
Now that you’ve purged all your duplicate and unnecessary files, gotten your filing system nailed down, and wrangled your research notes, you need to make sure that all those precious files stay safe!
Trust me, there is nothing worse than having your computer go up in flames (literally—that was a really bad day) right when you’re finishing up the final draft of your new book. Knowing that you have a safe backup copy of your files can help relieve the stress of having your laptop take a tumble or your hard drive fail.
External Hard Drive
Nearly every computer these days comes with a perfectly adequate built-in backup function to let you essentially clone your hard drive to an external unit. If you’re on a Mac, you should have Time Machine set up to make backups of your hard drive; on Windows, this is done through Windows Backup & Restore.
Now, the version kept on your internal hard drive will help if you need to transfer your information from one computer to a new one…but what if something goes snap-crackle-pop and the hard drive is gone?
That’s why you need external backups.
You can do this using the built-in tools, setting Time Machine or Windows Backup & Restore to target an external drive (either one plugged in by USB or networked to your router). You can also use the software that comes on most external hard drives these days; it can set scheduled backups and manage your data neatly in the background.
I recommend running these automated backups all the time—every few hours, just in case—but also doing regular manual backups of your important files and folders to a secondary backup drive (lose all your data once and you’ll be paranoid like me, too).
For this, you can usually use either an inexpensive pocket USB drive—you can get a terabyte of storage for only about $55 now—or a USB flash drive for the really critical files (most of us only have a few gigs of writing documents, because these tend to be small files).
Personally, I have a continual Time Machine backup to a networked drive, a 2Tb USB drive I back all my files up to once a month, and a 64Gb USB stick I keep all my current work files on.
Play It Safe
When choosing an external hard drive, be sure to pick a reputable brand name. It’s really tempting, especially with USB flash drive sticks, to go with the cheap $10 ones that promise a whopping 512Gb of space. But these are usually scams—the USB flash memory has been hacked to display an available 512Gb when in reality, it’s only an 8Gb stick. Try to load more than 8Gb of data and the whole thing corrupts and becomes completely unusable.
It’s better to spend an extra $10-25 to get a name brand you recognize and can trust…and that has a warranty.
This is your data—and for authors, that means your livelihood and career. Don’t skimp on protecting it.
Just in case.
While you’re at it, consider setting up a redundant cloud backup system. After all, an external hard drive can go up in flames, get ruined by water damage, or otherwise become useless in the face of a natural disaster. And then all your writing is gone, no matter how careful you’ve been.
That would be a real disaster.
With cloud storage, your files are backed up somewhere else in the world, on someone else’s servers.
It’s incredibly handy, not just because your data is backed up and protected in case some accident befalls your laptop and your external hard drive at the same time (rampaging herd of wildebeest, maybe?), but because you can also work from anywhere via the cloud.
Most of us are already familiar with Dropbox, which offers 2Gb of free storage and also includes handy collaboration tools in its online suite.
Google Drive also offers free storage (a whole 15Gb) and document editing tools. It’s particularly convenient if you already use a Gmail account…and if you’re on an Android phone, it’s got some great apps for document creation and editing on the go.
Box is another service with a basic free tier (10Gb) and some great collaboration, sharing, and editing tools, including a nice smartphone app.
Believe it or not, a writer’s best friend here may be Microsoft. The OneDrive service comes pre-installed on Windows 10 devices, but it can also be used with Mac, iPhone, and Android devices. You get 5Gb of storage for free, but the real value comes when you upgrade to the annual paid version.
While other cloud services give you more free storage, OneDrive offers a great price for an annual plan—$70 per year for one computer and 1Tb of storage or $100 per year for five computers, five tablets or smartphones, and a total 5Tb of storage space. But the key here is that these paid plans come with full access to the Office suite, both on your computer and on the go through cloud apps.
So while Google Drive offers a lot of storage and access to Docs, Sheets, and so on…it costs a little bit more than OneDrive for the same space ($100/year for 1Tb) and you don’t have the same robust compatibility that Microsoft Office has. And heck, you’re probably already using Office…it can be hard to switch.
If you don’t want to access your files on the go and keep them synced to multiple devices (say, your tablet, your laptop, and your work computer) and, instead, you just want to make an off-site backup of your files, you can go with a cloud backup company.
This is different from cloud storage because it basically does the same thing as that external hard drive backup we talked about, only remote from your location. Cloud storage like Dropbox or OneDrive, on the other hand, only syncs and backs up the files that you specify by putting them in a certain folder—but it makes those files available any time, anywhere.
Again, this is potentially a redundancy option—if you’re really paranoid about your files, plus you want to be able to work remotely, you might invest in both a cloud storage subscription and a cloud backup service.
Some reliable cloud backup services include Carbonite, Backblaze, and CrashPlan. All of them offer a variety of plans and pricing based on how many computers you want to back up, how much storage space you need, and so on.
One unique option is SugarSync, which acts as both a cloud backup service and a cloud storage service, backing up all your files and making them available online and on all your devices. It’s a little pricier than some other options, but it’s very flexible and can combine two backup procedures into one while letting you work on the go
Whatever options you choose, take the time to purge your unneeded files, organize what’s left, and back the whole thing up. You’ll be rewarded by easier search, faster research, and the security of knowing your precious writing is safe and sound!
Spring clean your files to make your writing process faster, easier, and more foolproof.
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For more on creating systems to help you write more and better, read on:
- Time Management for Writers: The Stopwatch Method for Massive Creative Productivity
- How to Get More Done in Less Time: Create Systems That Work for You
- 51+ Productivity Tools, Tricks and Resources (The Ultimate Time Hacking List)