A Writer’s Primer on Computer Care and Feeding

We’re in the midst of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m reminded of several instances where the moan of “I just lost everything!” was heard over a coffee shop table. I’ve talked with writers who’ve lost entire manuscripts. Others that lost hours or days of work due to various issues. So, a quick technical primer and keeping “lossage” down to the minimum.

Work stably.

Make sure your computer works, that the operating system is patched regularly, and that you aren’t filling it up with “cool stuff I downloaded.” If you have a desktop computer, make sure it has a battery-backed UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). A flicker in the power is long enough to throw a desktop into memory chaos. Or, worse, corrupt the storage device. UPS’ are heavy, cost about $90 (here’s the one that I’ve used for years), and, if everything’s plugged in correctly, you have enough time to close up everything and power down normally. (Pro tip: plug the desktop and your primary monitor into the battery-backed AC sockets so you can see what you’re typing as you shut things down!) To avoid mumbo and its twin brother jumbo, a 650Kw UPS will hold everything up and running for at least the five minutes you’d need to cleanly power things down. If you have a laptop I still recommend a UPS, but you’d be served well by merely having a serious power spike protector. Looks for power strips with circuit breakers that will “pop” if the power suddenly spikes.) Nothing will stop a lightning strike, but it should keep minor disturbances of the force–I mean, the AC power-, my Lord Vader-from messing with your laptop’s power adapter. If your devices charges from a USB-C plug and you want to skip the boxy power adapter and buy a power strip that has that built into it, doubly ensure there’s a strong power protection for anything you buy.

Work safely.

Think of your writing environment the same way a chef looks at her or his kitchen before starting work. Bad ingredience, sloppy prep, and insufficient cleaning habits can and have ruined a restaurant’s business.

At a minimum, have a real anti-virus product that (a) scans files for infections, and (b) can safeguard your network connection. It doesn’t need backup (I’ll get to that below). It doesn’t need to check each web site you go to to assess its safety.

Check for viruses on files on your disk and incoming, and make sure your computer’s connection to the internet is safe. There’s a bunch of vendors, but I’ve been happy with Symantec’s Norton Security, for that, as well as for managing my passwords.

Work securely.

That means being secure that the story you’re writing will be there when you need it (or especially if you accidentally delete it!). Get software that copies what you write to the cloud. The goal is that if your computer goes up in smoke, your writing, at least, is safe.

The cloud is the vague, amorphous thing that we old-timers know as “a server with a disk somewhere else on the planet.” Microsoft offers it. I use Dropbox because it’s easy to recover a manuscript I’ve accidentally mangled but good. Some are free with a cost for more storage. I have a free Dropbox account because, frankly, manuscripts just don’t take up much room. I use Microsoft’s OneDrive for my non-writing documents and other files. Apple’s iCloud also works, however its integration with your computer is smoothest when you’re on Apple hardware/OS.

Optional: Work secretly.

I don’t like Google and Comcast and their ilk tracking my research. I can’t help but think that there’s a profile of me as a bomb-making, murder-planning, gun-crazed psychopath based on my book research. (Along with another profile of me as an astronaut interested in biological warfare and kinetic weapons.) Ads get targeted based on what you look at. The solution is a two (or three)-parter: hide your activity from your internet provider, and then hide what you look up from your search engine. So:

  • Look at a commercial, for-pay VPN software package. They’re simple to install and use, and usually one license gets you three computers to cover, which include phones. NordVPN and IPVanish (which I use) are two of the currently popular ones, and you’re looking at ~$75 for the subscription for the first year or two. They’re both offering discounts and sales all the time. If you want something that doesn’t encrypt your text, but still hides where you go, go to and get a free setup that at least hides what you do from the company providing you network access. Without it, Google, for example, knows about each site you visit (and then links that to your google profile).
  • Every time you search, the query and results are integrated into your “profile” that the search engine sells to advertisers. Or, who knows, maybe even to the black-hatted shadow, deep-state government that’s watching you from its black helicopters spraying chem trails! Regardless, there’s easy ways to look things up without having your searches tracked. I use duckduckgo.com, which is simply google but with a filter that doesn’t allow your computer’s activity to be linked to your searches. On mobile phones Firefox has the Focus app, which wipes all cookies and traces of your work.
  • For extra special paranoia (and I use this when I want to ask really awkward questions or research the nasty stuff), use the Tor browser, instead of Google, Safari, Firefox, or Edge browser. Tor encrypts everything everywhere to everyone from everyone. It’s a lot slower than a normal browser, and it doesn’t block ads like other browsers can. But those ads aren’t tied to you or your machine.

Work silently.

Not you, your environment. So:

  • If you can handle writing with music, keep that app up. Close all other apps, including your browser if you can. You can always put research into its own block of time.
  • Windows has an irritating notifications “capability.” It’s the ultimate in interrupt-driven information. If you’re afflicted with Windows 10, go to the notification settings and turn off everything that doesn’t need to be on. And that (especially) includes Facebook, twitter, and their ilk.
  • For browsers, get an ad blocker for it. That keeps distractions down to a minimum. I use AdBlock Plus, which is free. There are others.

Work succinctly.

(All right, that was a stretch usage of “succinctly.) Use the minimum tools to get the job done and distractions at the minimum.

  • One writing tool to bind them all.  Choose Word ($$), or OpenOffice (free). Or yWriter (free). Or Scrivener ($). Heck, or Notepad (free). But the fewer the better. Moving text from one app to another is a sure-fire way to lose or scramble hard-written words. I use Scrivener, FWIW.
  • Helper tools:
    1. I use Aeon ($$) for timelines (don’t recommend much), and Freemind (free) for sketching out plot directions and consequences and most other mind mapping needs. Google Earth Pro does my geographic research. Fun fact, it works on the Moon as well.
    2. Put interrupts into a parking lot. I use Trello (free) to write down “ooh, I need to do this…” things. It’s free, good for putting a to-do list together for multiple topics and projects. Has a mobile app. Did I mention it was free. This eliminates the “I’ll just do this one thing…” that sabotages your writing commitment.
    3. Other story ideas, chunks of writing, or notes? Consider either having a separate [word processor of your choice] document open just for snippets and other story ideas. That way they don’t derail you. Or use Evernote (free), for as long as it’s still in business. Oh, and Windows 10 offer the OneNote app. It can be very helpful, but I’m not a fan.

There. A longer post than I expected. Hopefully it’ll help you keep a stable, clean, calm, and productive environment in which to focus on your Writing.