Dropbox: A Primer for Writers

Whether it’s because it’s November and NaNoWriMo or happenstance, I’ve heard a few tales of woe lately from writers whose hard drive crashed or, in one person’s case, had their laptop stolen. In each case, the writer did not have recent backups and lost what they were working on. My inner geek cringes to hear things like this. Backing up should be pain-free, easy, and washing mashing safe. I thought I’d talk a little bit about my process.

Acts of theft aside, the loss of work is so nearly avoidable in this age. I was an early adopter of online file storage, dating back to the early 2000’s and a brief stint writing that kind of software for a company that no longer exists. I still lament the loss of one particular story, lost to the fickle platters of an angry electronic god and I don’t want to go through that again. That’s where Dropbox came into my life.

What is Dropbox? It’s not the most clear from their webpage without watching their video. Dropbox is, in a nutshell, a system for backing up and synchronizing files between your devices (PC, Mac, Linux, or Mobile) and the Cloud. The Cloud, in this instance, being Amazon’s S3 file storage service.

How it works

Every computer you install the desktop software in will place a “Dropbox” folder in your home directory. Inside that directory, I’ve organized all of the documents and files I want to keep backed up and synchronized. It looks a little bit like this:

  • Clients
    • Contracts
    • Proposals
  • Documents
    • Taxes
    • Receipts
  • Public
  • Writing
    • Contracts
    • Copyedited
    • Cover Letters
    • Critiques
    • Essays
    • Fiction – Short
    • Fiction – Long
    • For Critique
    • For Submission

That probably looks somewhat familiar. It should. The point is, the Dropbox folder shouldn’t look any different what you already have, except for its name. It took me a while to come up with a file structure that suited me and to remember to save things to it but that’s all. As long as you’re connected to the internet, you’re done. Dropbox will backup any new file you move or create under its folder, and synchronize any changes that you make.

Privacy and Security

As with any service that transfers and stores your data online, there are privacy and security concerns to consider. Dropbox got themselves into a middle of a fuss some months back thanks to some unclear changes to their Privacy Policy, which have since been revised for clarification.

The short, non-technical version is that they use same kind of security that your web browser uses to keep your secure when you’re checking bank balances or shopping online. Once in the Cloud, your files are not encrypted unless you encrypted them first, but they are three ways your files can be accessed by others. Two are if you’ve chosen to share them, either by putting the file in your Public folder *and* linked them to it or specifically invited them to share files. The third is by an employee of Dropbox, when they are legally required to do so.

There’s a privacy debate about whether or not Dropbox should encrypt by default and, indeed, there are competitors such as SpiderOak that do, but their client software was not nearly as well-integrated the last I checked and, for that reason, not suitable for my needs. It comes down to a personal choice; I’m choosing convenience in this case.

There was a debacle in June 2011, where a programming change introduced a bug that left accounts accessible by any password for four hours. An embarrassing mistake, unlikely to happen, and not enough by itself to find an alternative.

Disaster Recover

I primarily work from a Macbook Pro, but I have an older Mac Mini in my office that I primarily use for music. I installed Dropbox on that and linked it to my account. If I’m on the road and make changes, they are automatically synchronized at home. Dropbox already provides a way to restore files, through the desktop application and their website but this gives me an extra layer of redundancy.

Whether you use Scrivener like I do, Word, Open Office, yWriter, or whatever, things occasionally get bolloxed up. You can train yourself to hit save early and often or setup auto-save but no matter how many times do, sometimes the last save is the only one it takes to corrupt a document and make it unreadable.

Dropbox to the rescue. Every time you save, it records the changes. Viewing the previous versions will show you the history of that file and let you download the previous copy until you find one that worked.

Other uses for Dropbox

I haven’t used Dropbox to share files between users much, but I’d love to hear comments from anyone who has, and how its worked. I have used it with the iPhone and iPad client, in conjunction with the Plaintext application, to make quick changes or even revise (with an external keyboard).

Getting Dropbox

Dropbox has a free tier with 2GB of storage, which should be more than sufficient if you’re using it to store documents or small files, with increases in 250MB increments if you refer people to signup with them. A paid plan of course, is available, if you need more. I’ve been using the free tier for more than three years without having to consider upgrading. Download, install, and forget about it.

Get Dropbox (using my referral link, so we both get 250MB bonus storage)
Get Dropbox (no referral link, but no bonus storage)

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  • A friend and I beta read for each other.  DB is great because we don’t have to email the file. We just drop it in the folder and DB automatically notifies us when we log in.  It also helps when you have different edits of a piece. You can look back and see what version the other person is looking at.
    I don’t have it set up at the computer at work (Yet!)  but it makes it very easy to retrieve files on any computer I am at in the house.

  • Wendy

    Love Dropbox! My friend and I, both doing NaNoWriMo, have a shared folder in which we put our novels. It’s simple and easy for us to read each other’s work when we want to.

  • Or you could just email your work to yourself at the end of the week, and thereby preserve every week’s work in email.

    • That isn’t bad as an active backup, but the point of using Dropbox is it makes the process passive — it’s always there, always running, always keeping your data backed up.

      Also, if something happens to your computer between emails, all that work is lost. Dropbox saves changes as they happen so the potential for loss is much, much smaller. 

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  • I personally just use my Gmail account and my external harddrive as backups.  Gmail gives me many gigs of room and so when I’m working on a novel, each week I back it up with the new version and label it appropriately.  I actually learned this from Neil Gaiman who does the same thing.

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