Preserve what you create

A couple of weeks back, my website went down, the result of “malware,” a term I didn’t really know much about. My website hosts more than 10 years of my blog archives, plus my entire business. What happens with malware is that the software is designed to break in to a website and then they start adding files, changing files, just basically breaking things.

I have to say, it’s a horrible feeling to see something you have built be maliciously destroyed. Unfortunately, this happens across the digital sphere.

Recently, a writer I know had her Facebook author page, with thousands and thousands of followers, completely disappear. It got caught up in Facebook’s own algorithm where it was mistakenly flagged as breaking some kind of rule. They deleted her author page permanently and without explanation or warning. All those years of posts, all of those connections to people who follow her writing… gone.

Another friend lost several weeks of writing on her most recent book manuscript when her computer died. She almost lost the entire thing, but was able to find a copy of it that she had emailed to someone.

The other day I wanted to share an essay I had published years ago in an online literary journal. The essay is now missing from their website.

What you create matters. To who you are, and to others who will be moved by your work. Yet, very often, we don’t treat our work with the respect it deserves by preserving it. Today, this is what I would like to talk about how to secure your creative work so that it lasts. And I apologize if this is a boring topic, but I believe in it strongly: please backup your work.

What does this include? The following:

  • Your writing
  • Your computer
  • Your photos
  • Your phone
  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter list
  • Your social media accounts

I’ve heard plenty of people avoid this work, concluding, “If I lost my photos (or my website, or social media account), I would just move on. Like the old song: Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”

But on a random Tuesday, no one wants to realize that their stuff is missing. No one wants to spend hours on hold with customer service trying to figure out what happened. No one wants to think, “I’m ending the day with less ways to connect with readers than when the day started.”

I will be clear about my recommendations:

  • Backup your computer! At the very least, use a cloud-based system such as Dropbox or iCloud. But I would go a step further, and purchase an external hard drive and use software to also backup your entire computer to that too. There are programs that automate this for you.
  • Backup your phone! So many people have thousands of photos, their entire contact list, notes, etc. that are never backed up. It’s not that difficult to lose your phone. Some of this, you can backup wirelessly to the cloud. But also consider plugging it in and backing it up to your computer too, for easy access.
  • Backup your website! If you are using WordPress or other popular platforms, there are plug-ins that will create automated backups for you. Use those! But I would go a step further, and do manual backups of all the files and the database too.
  • Lock down your website! Make sure all of the software is up to date. If you can, use some common plug-ins like Wordfence or Sucuri to apply safety measures.
  • Backup your email list! It’s a simple download. If you spent years developing that list, don’t risk it.
  • Backup your cloud files! If you use Google docs or other online documents, download copies of critical files so you have local versions too.
  • Backup your social media accounts! Did you know that all major social networks will create a simple download file of all of what you share, who you follow, etc? Get the download!
  • Backup your published writing! If you shared posts on a blog, newsletter, on Medium, in a book, anything — have backup copies of it that don’t rely on someone else to preserve them.

I would even encourage you to go a step further: have backup systems. Workflows that consider what would happen if one of your tools broke down. For instance, I have redundant backups of my computer. If one goes down, I can immediately work from another. If that goes down too, I have a third I can work from.

I always remembered this moment from an early 2000’s Apple Keynote address. Steve Jobs is on stage doing a demo of some new Apple software, when something goes wrong. Here he is in front of hundreds of people in the audience, with thousands more watching through a livestream, and instead of feeling the glory of showing off an amazing new product, he is showing them an error.

What happened next is why investing in systems matters…

He calmly moves his hand to the right, flips a switch that brings up a backup a computer, and says: “Well that’s why we have backup systems here.” His presentation went on without a hitch. No sweat. No panicked looks to an engineer offstage. No headlines of how badly the keynote went.

Yet so often, writers and creators don’t backup what they create. They don’t invest in systems that protect their ability to create. They don’t preserve their own work. They don’t honor the connections to others they have forged by finding ways to ensure it isn’t at risk.

For the recent issue with my website, I had previously taken lots of steps to protect my it. Or so I thought. Turns out, I had missed quite a bit. Yes, I had backups of my website, but I also had big gaping security holes: old files and software that wasn’t updated. Think of it like this: it’s as if my house had 1,000 extra doors that I didn’t know about. These doors are old, with rotting wood and rusty hinges. When I discovered the problem because my website was down, I took a serious look at things.

I deleted thousands upon thousands of files that I didn’t need, and updated everything else. I added a couple of layers of active protection to ensure I can monitor the health of my website automatically, and am paying for a team of security experts to help clean up the mess and ensure it is now safe. Of course, I made lots of small changes to ensure it was harder for someone to break into my site.

Too often, we see prevention of risk as a cost. I mean, who wants yet another $20 per month fee for security, or to spend 4 hours figuring out how to create backups. But the truth is really the other way around. Prevention is an investment. Here is a non-digital example to illustrate what I mean: I have a friend who is in his 60s, very active and fit, and no stranger to doing serious (and safe) labor. The other day, he was coming down the ladder from his roof holding a pole chainsaw. Suddenly, he fell 7 feet to concrete. He did not land on his feet. Even though he had likely climbed down that ladder hundreds of times, his conclusion was simple: “I’m lucky to be alive.” He had some bruises but no other injuries, and he headed to the hospital to ensure that was the case. He has heard the stories of how an accident like that can cause serious injury or worse.

He’s decided to make changes to how he uses ladders, the kind of precautions that people often skip. He’ll be ensuring there is a second person there to hold the ladder and monitor activity whenever he uses it. Does that make it 3x more complicated to do the work he wants to do? Yep. Could it literally add years to his life? Yep.

I know everyone reading this already has too much to worry about. Why add a list of backup procedures to your to-do list like I’m writing about here? Well, I have found that it encourages me to simplify my platform as a writer. To consider: what is most important to me, how can I protect that, and how can I let everything else go?

So in the past couple weeks, I let go of a lot of old projects hidden on my websites, that turned out to be risking my main business. But that digital cleanup helped me to recommit to what matters. And protecting that feels good.

Much of this work can be automated, and for the rest, you can set simple reminders in your calendar.

I’m curious: when is the last time you backed up the creative work that matters most to you?