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So What’s The Fuss About Dropbox?

Being a writer is about facing fear daily. Whether it be trying to tackle scenes that seem a little challenging or dealing with the daily worries of trying to forge a writing career in a marketplace that is seeing massive upheaval, fear is something that writers know all too well. But if there’s one phrase that would send a cold chill up any writer’s spine, it’s the phrase, “hard disk crash”. Even if you’re lucky enough to have never lost work due to a technical failure, the mere thought of losing hours and hours of your writing is enough to bring most writers out in a cold sweat.

We all know we should back up our work. We all know the consequences if we do not. But buying an external drive can seem like a waste of money … that is until your computer explodes and you realise that expense you were quibbling about a few months ago would have been worth it.

There’s also another benefit of backing work up. If you do most of your work on a desktop computer, having an up-to-date backup means you can transfer it to a laptop should you want to work away from your desk. But there are dangers to this as well as you need to remember to transfer files back and forward, either by carrying your backup drive with you, or by emailing the files to yourself so they can be downloaded by another computer.

This is where Cloud Storage can come in. It’s a flashy tech term, but all it means at its most basic, is that files are stored on the internet rather than on your local drive. That way if your hard disk crashes or you need to access the latest version, it’s as simple as connecting to the internet and pulling down the file.

It’s currently a boom industry with many tech companies launching cloud storage offerings. Nearly all of them will give you a basic free account with a limited amount of storage, with the option to pay should you want more space. They are primarily marketed as an online backup facility, but many writers have found that they are the perfect solution to their online backup and computer syncing needs.

Dropbox (logo)Dropbox is one such cloud storage provider, and considered by many to be a leader in the field. That said, the market is moving rapidly with a lot of new players offering new and enticing features to attract signups.

Dropbox offers a free account with 2GB of free storage. It’s possible to increase this significantly by referring friends, but the wonderful thing for writers is that text documents are very small in size. Unless you’re packing your documents with loads of images, it’s doubtful that even the most prolific amongst you could write enough words to ever fill that much space.

Upon signing up, you are asked to install some software to each computer you wish to use Dropbox on. There are packages available for Windows, Mac and various distributions of Linux. One of Dropbox’s strengths is that it has been going long enough that they have developed software so that it pretty much works with anything. You can even get apps for your phone that will automatically download your camera roll.

The install on your computer will create a Dropbox folder at the file location you specify. To back anything up, all you need to do is copy the file into this directory and it will be uploaded to the cloud. Then when you log onto a different computer with the Dropbox software installed, the machine will connect to the cloud upon boot up and download any new or updated files. If you have the phone app installed, it’s a really easy way to back up your camera phone to your PC.

Dropbox tends to be the preferred cloud storage for writers, mainly because the writing program Scrivener has done a lot of work to make their software compatible with it. If you save your writing project to the Dropbox folder, not only are you automatically saving your file after two seconds of inactivity as part of Scrivener’s feature set, but this is then getting backed up to the cloud.

This also means that if you have a Windows desktop and a Mac Laptop, you can work on your manuscript on your Windows machine in the morning, shutdown and go visit friends or family with your Macbook, and be able to open Scrivener and continue exactly where you left off.

Sounds too perfect to be true, doesn’t it? In reality, it works extremely well so long as you have internet connectivity. Dropbox needs this to sync. So if you’re going to take your laptop somewhere you don’t expect to have access to a WiFi connection, you need to discipline yourself to make sure you load up your laptop and let it sync before going out, and then again as soon as you get home.

In fairness, if you get your syncing wrong what you are likely to end up with is two documents which don’t perfectly match. You shouldn’t lose work, but you will have to hunt around to find missing scenes and then make sure that your document is corrected. It’s an annoyance and I have to be honest and say that over a number of years of having used Scrivener with Dropbox, I’ve only had it happen a couple of times. It’s lead to a frantic hour or so of pure panic but in each case, it was because I brought my laptop home from writing offline and forgot to sync it before launching the version on the desktop. I’ve yet to lose any work.

There’s also been some security issues with Dropbox in the past. Being a major player in the cloud storage market means that it’s a target for hackers. I doubt that they are interested in your Scrivener document but it can make some writers understandably nervous. Dropbox has done some work to improve its security since the hack, but it’s important to remember that just because it’s happened once, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen again. This extends to all cloud storage providers – just because they haven’t been hacked, doesn’t mean they won’t be.

At the end of the day, you have to weigh up the risk of someone compromising the security of a cloud storage provider with billions of files from millions of customers against the risk of your hard disk corrupting and you losing your documents. There’s no right or wrong way to approach backup, but for those looking for an automated solution or one that allows them to work on multiple machines, Dropbox is probably the best solution we have out there currently.

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5 Comments

  1. Nathan says:

    I been using Dropbox for my writing primary storage for probably 2-3 years now and love it as it keeps my files synced across three computers. Scrivener will now even tell you if you left one open so you don’t have two conflicting at once.
    Remembering to sync the laptop before going to no wi-fi area and remembering to sync it when I get back is annoying but less troublesome then carrying a USB stick. I only recall having conflicting data once and was able to recover it within an hour.

  2. Caleb Ross says:

    I’ve been a supporter of Dropbox for years now, and everything you’re talking about here is absolutely true. Dropbox provides a great method of bouncing between computers (in my case a couple of laptops) keeping me within arms reach of the stories that I am working on.

  3. Phil says:

    I was an ardent fan of Dropbox when it first appeared, but I have recently de-installed it from all my kit because they now force automatic updates of their software upon you and where I come from, that is tantamount to hacking. I will decide when to apply changes to the software that is installed upon my hardware.

    Forty+ years of working as an IT specialist has taught me two things about vendor software: 1. Don’t install version 1 of anything and 2. Don’t install maintenance as soon as it is available – let someone else find the bugs and suffer. I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen the consequences of so-called technical experts disregarding this common sense approach. As far I know, the perfect programmer has yet to be born.

    In addition, there is a trust element. Data kept in Dropbox is stored in the US and the company is obliged (and indeed willing) to give access (despite their own claims about encryption) to various US government agencies. You can, of course, use your own preferred encryption technique on top of theirs. You will find mention of Dropbox in Snowden’s revelations. What better way to get access to your stuff other than to force updates upon you?

  4. Great article. I’ve been using Dropbox as one of many back-ups for my writing and it’s been a smooth and easy process. I definitely recommend it. I don’t bother to sync though, because it gets confusing trying to remember where the most recently updated document is. I just write on my laptop and use Dropbox like an external hard-drive.

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