One advantage of working with digital resources is that they can be duplicated and stored more-or-less for free. It is tempting to think of backup as a chore that can be deferred, but experience shows that if you try that you may end up putting it off until it is too late. If you set up your backup system before doing anything else, you have more peace of mind, and you have more freedom to experiment with your process, because you can undo anything that isn’t working out.
For my ‘super-secret’ monograph, I am using a number of different kinds of backup and version control, and my system is intentionally redundant. First of all, since I am working on a Mac, I have Time Machine set up to copy all of my files to an external hard drive at regular intervals. If I decide that I need an earlier copy of something, it is usually easiest to check there first. I also have a script that automatically makes a bootable copy of my machine every night on a different external hard drive using SuperDuper. If my system dies, I want to be able to plug that drive into another Mac and boot up my working environment without any interruptions or any need to reinstall and customize software. Occasionally I do want to reinstall software, so I also keep copies of all of the packages that I install in a separate directory (these are the .dmg files on the Mac).
So, if I lose a file, I’m covered. If a software update breaks something that was working, I’m covered. If my machine dies, I’m covered. What happens if my house gets stepped on by Godzilla while I’m out for my daily walk? (He goes for daily walks, too.) That’s where offsite backups come in. I’m using Jungle Disk to make daily copies of essential files in the cloud. That system is automated so that I don’t have to think about it. I am a pretty big fan of Jungle Disk… the entire NiCHE server got nuked once, and I was able to put a new copy of our site online in a few hours with no hassle. I also use Dropbox regularly, to explicitly back up files, to synchronize things between my various computers, and to share document drafts and large data sets with collaborators in the UK.
Free and easy backup is just one advantage of an all-digital workflow; version control is another. (If this is unfamiliar, see Julie Meloni’s “Gentle Introduction“). I’m using Git to version my source code and GitHub to share it with other programmers. I tend not to revert to earlier versions of my own prose, so I don’t use version control for writing, but it is certainly an option. If you are not programming and are mostly happy with what you write, you can use your backup system as a kind of version control.