Scrivener for Smarties: Backups

I hang out on the Scrivener forums a lot. Some might say I’m a little compulsive about it, but the forums are where I’ve picked up pretty much all that I know about Scrivener. Today, I’m talking about backups. It’s usually only after a disaster that people get serious about backing up their work, and then they only do it in a haphazard mishmash of thumb drives and email attachments. Yet lost work is a preventable problem for all writers and creators of digital content; how to protect your work from hard drive crashes, theft, and the dread were-badger? Well, I’m here to help, at least with regard to Scrivener’s various features that keep your writing safe.

Auto-Save

Scrivener’s first line of defense against data loss is the auto-save feature. While this is getting more common in traditional word processors, typically the only way to prevent the loss of your work is to constantly hit CMD-S (CTRL-S on Windows) which is analogous to using the File->Save menu.

But not so with Scrivener. By default, when you pause for 2 seconds (not typing or dragging things around in the binder), it will save any changes you’ve made recently. This means that habitually hitting the save menu won’t (normally) do anything. Auto-saving means that you never have to worry about a dying battery or power outage destroying hours of work. Well, you still have to worry; a sudden power loss or computer crash can still corrupt open files, but auto-save reduces those risks considerably.

Auto-save also means that you can’t back out of all of your recent changes by not saving at the end of an hour or a day. By the time you close a Scrivener project, it has already saved the vast majority of any changes you might have made over the course of a day’s work, and will go ahead and commit any remaining alterations to the hard drive the moment you quit. For that kind of reversal of your work, investigate Scrivener’s snapshot feature.

Automatic Backups

The most effective kind of backup is the one you don’t have to think about making; backups should just happen. This is true of computer-level backups like Mac OS X’s “Time Machine” that makes hourly backups to external drives without your intervention, and to a lesser extent, it’s true of Scrivener.

By default (we’ll get to these ‘defaults’ in a bit), Scrivener will create a copy of your project every time you close it, and will keep five such copies before it starts deleting the oldest. Each project gets its own set, so there’s no need to worry that your Sherlock/John slash-fic backups will overwrite your Bigfoot erotica backups. Each project gets five… wait for it… “by default.”

I’m awfully paranoid about losing my work though, and five seems like such a paltry number—five good backups can so easily be replaced with 5 bad ones before you realize what you’ve done. If you’re similarly paranoid, go to Scrivener->Preferences->Backup (Tools->Options->backup on Windows) and increase the “keep only” value to 25, the maximum, non-infinite number of backups that option allows. Or pick another number; I’m not the boss of you.

You’ll also notice, while visiting that preferences pane, that you can have the backups triggered when you open the project, or even when you do a “manual save”, which means invoking File->Save, or using the equivalent keyboard shortcut. Beware using the later if you are a habitual saver, as you can obliterate good backups with unnecessary minor backups.

Finally, you can change where those backups are saved to.

Scrivener-Preferences-Backup
Use the ‘Open Backup Folder…’ button to find your current set

Manual Backups; aka “Back Up To…”

Under the File menu, there’s a “Backup” option to choose, and under that, “Back Up To…” This is what I recommend that you use instead of “Save As”, which I will address in a moment. It’s a way to create backups separate from the automatics, and provides you with the opportunity to rename that backup to something meaningful. It’s a great way to create milestone versions that won’t be deleted when you hit the “Keep Only” limit set in Preferences/Options.

Scrivener-BackUpTo
You can use a different folder and/or name with Back Up To…

“Save As,” The 21st Century’s Floppy Disk

While there are still legitimate uses for using the File->Save As feature in Scrivener, backing up your work is not one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people come to the forums complaining of missing work, only to find that they saved a new copy of their project as a backup, but kept editing that version rather than the original. When they re-opened the original project later, the work they had done just done simply wasn’t there, sending them into a panic.

If you trust my advice (and why wouldn’t you trust your writing to a stranger on the internet?), then start breaking yourself of the “Save As” backup habit. You already have two ways to generate backups without any chance of confusing your working copy with them: manual and automatic. You don’t really need a third way (from within Scrivener), do you?

No, you don’t.

Compile Your Work In Progress

While it may not come out formatted prettily until you fiddle with the compile settings, creating a single document of your manuscript is not a bad idea. I recommend compiling to Rich Text Format, which is Scrivener’s native document format, and can be read by almost any other word processor in the solar system.

Visit File->Compile, and at the bottom of that window, choose “RTF” as the output type, then pick a spot for it to be saved to. Scrivener should remember what you chose and present you with that location from there on.

Some (Too Many?) Notes on “Cloud” Storage & Backups

The main advantage of using cloud storage for your backups is that they will be located in at least two places automatically. One place will be the folder where software monitors for new, deleted, or changed files; this folder is on your hard drive, not “in the cloud” as so many people seem to misunderstand. The other copy will, of course, be “in the cloud,” which is just market-speak for “on a computer on the internet somewhere.” This ‘cloud’ copy is just that; a copy. It’s still going to be on your hard drive too. (Some people have a hard time with this concept, so I feel obligated to emphasize the distinction here.)

Once you’ve got the cloud software installed on your computer, revisit your Backup pane in Scrivener’s Preferences/Options. There you will find a path to the folder where your automatic backups are being saved. You’ll also see a handy button to choose another location. Use this option to put your backups into your brand new cloud storage folder! Just do it. You’ll thank me later.

Also, and this can be very important in some situations: Use the option to compress your backups to .zip files. Do not use cloud storage for your backups without turning this other option on. Most of the cloud storage companies out there seem to have some issues dealing with Scrivener’s project format [1] (it’s a bunch of files and folders in reality; Mac users only see a project as a single file). It also will save some space, which is at a premium on cloud storage servers, but primarily I’m advising the .zip option for maximum safety.

The .zip compression option has other benefits too; you can’t email a scrivener project without creating a .zip file out of it first; there are just too many internal bits, and email is just not equipped to deal with it all. Another benefit; you can’t accidentally edit a Scrivener project while it’s .zip compressed; you have to extract the .zip file’s contents using your operating system’s tools. This prevents you from accidentally opening a backup and thinking it is your “real” project.

Synchronizing projects between computers

I’m not covering the related, but distinct issue of synchronizing your Scrivener projects from one computer to another—I’m saving that controversial topic for another day. There are a whole set of other issues you need to pay attention to, including which cloud storage service you use. More on this in a later post.

Megabytes for the poor, sir?

If you want to help me out with my own cloud storage, and you like the looks of Drop Box, please consider using this link to sign up; I get an extra 500MB if you do. Drop Box is also likely the first (and perhaps only) cloud solution that will work with the upcoming iPad/iPhone version of Scrivener, so if you’re looking forward to that release, you’ll want an account anyway. It’s got enough space for you to store a goodly amount of backups on it.

I have no pride.

Final Wordy Words

Wow, that was a lot of information. I hope your brain didn’t go all ‘splody! Let me know if this was helpful, or what you might like me to cover next.


  1. Technically, this probably isn’t a risk to worry about with backups, since you’re not changing any files; merely creating a lot of new ones. Still, better to be safe.  ↩
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8 responses to “Scrivener for Smarties: Backups

  • Scrivener for Smarties: Backups | Everything Scrivener

    […] more here – Scrivener for Smarties: Backups | Ambiguous Antecedent. […]

  • David S

    I agree that cloud storage is something that needs to be thought carefully about. Some of the cloud services strike me as a poor way of backing up, since they are really designed for syncing your data between locations rather than protecting your files. So if you delete a Scrivener project from your local cloud folder, or you accidentally save over the project with a blank document, there is a chance the cloud service will update its servers to reflect the state of your hard drive, which is no use at all.

    I’m currently using a service called SpiderOak, which is explicitly designed for backing up. It creates a securely stored backup the instant any of your designated files change. The other big advantage is it backs up historical iterations of your files (going back, I think, indefinitely, and at least some way further than the 25 versions Scrivener backs up).

    I can’t totally vouch for SpiderOak as I haven’t yet used it to recover anything, but I think it is worth being mindful about the features you need in a cloud service, and making sure when you do get one it is set up correctly to work well as a backup.

    • R. Dale Guthrie

      I’m glad you brought that up.

      It’s true that most of the cloud storage services have their issues, especially with deleted files, though I think it’s more common than not for there to be a method for restoring something you just deleted. Dropbox, for example, keeps up with 30 days of deleted files which you can restore from. But one of the main advantages of any of putting your backups into one of these service’s folders is co-location, even if it’s at the expense of recovering from deletion.

      But for anyone who is truly serious about backing up to the cloud, I recommend CrashPlan. It works in a similar fashion to Spider Oak, in that it encrypts your data first (only you possess the key to decrypt), and then sends it out, but it also allows you to back up everything on your hard drive for a monthly fee (no size limit). You can also back up locally, or even co-locate to a friend’s router. It’s definitely not for syncing your files, but for a comprehensive backup strategy, it’s hard to beat. And it works with Mac, Windows and even Linux.

      I debated whether I should have mentioned full backup services like Crashplan and Carbonite in my rather wordy post, but I figured if people aren’t doing any backups of their Scrivener files, getting them signed up with Dropbox and increasing the backups to 25 was certainly a good (and simple to implement) start.

  • Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB)

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve been getting used to Scrivener during the past week. It’s not overly complicated, but everything comes with it’s own learning curve. Your info helped me tweak a few things, plus I didn’t realize the program was already making a backup automatically. I’m an old school ctrl-s person who still uses “save as” to backup to my thumb drive, but that wasn’t working too well with Scrivener. My only real grip now are the issues it seems to have with saving to SkyDrive (now called OneDrive). I changed the interval to every 30 seconds, so maybe that will help.

    • R. Dale Guthrie

      Yeah, I think you’ll have better luck with Back Up To… for your thumb drive.

      OneDrive (and others) have issues with “live” projects being saved to their sync folders, but your zip-compressed backups should be absolutely safe on any of them. I’d suggest keeping the project you’re actually working on outside of the OD folder and just point your backups there if you can.

  • How to set up Backups in Scrivener | Lucinda Whitney | LDS Author

    […] What I mentioned here is just an overview on how to set up the backups in Scrivener. For extra reading on Scrivener backups, with a lot more details, I recommend this blog post by R. Dale Guthrie. […]

  • Bonnnie in East Bay

    Thanks for this! I think I’ve fallen into most of the pitfalls you mention. When Windows decided to update itself overnight when I had NOT backed up before going to bed, I realized that all the backups were useless when I did not know how to restore. Nor did I know how to find the latest auto-backup version, as all my draft scene summaries were gone. After a lot of wasted time, I have developed this interim checklist (during NaNoWriMo, when time is precious anyway):

    Scrivener Checklist:

    Note: default save is to Dropbox.

    On getting up (even for a second, e.g. go to bathroom, get coffee): Backup

    On going to bed or leaving for 1 hour or more:
    Backup to HD, backup to Dropbox (default backup, zipped), backup to flash drive
    Compile to rtf –> overwrite older version of file in Googledocs

    Since reading your article I have removed all the “save” instructions. Not understanding how things worked, I had to reconstruct the summaries I had drafted the prior day from itty bits I could recover as rtf files from Carbonite; the Googledocs fix is so all my full chapters and scene summaries are stored together in case a real disaster happens. Probably it would be better to save 2–e.g. create .rtf Tuesday, create new one Wednesday, overwrite Tuesday’s Thursday, etc. Belt an suspenders, but the docs are saved by Google on ALL my devices without my needing to do anything further.

    Thanks!

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