Filing to keep your WIP safe : writing craft

woman against background of question marksA few weeks ago, I read Elizabeth Hawksley’s blog about the difficulties she had when first trying to turn one of her backlist into an ebook. She’d been filing her old manuscripts in chapters that she thought she could use. But the files turned out to include competing versions. She had real problems stitching together a continuous MS.

Elizabeth, you had all my sympathy.
Been there, done that.
Don’t have the t-shirt but probably should.

The old paper process and the filing we did

How many of us considered filing away a digital copy of the final printed MS with all the changes, including copy-edits? Few, I imagine.

bored woman resting head on deskI have done it. From printed proofs.
It was incredibly tedious and took for ever. And when I’d finished doing it, I did wonder why I’d bothered.

When (I thought) would I ever need an exact digital copy of the story that had just gone into print? Never, of course (I thought).

I decided it was a complete waste of time and effort. So I didn’t do it for any other MSS.
My crystal ball failed me there, as you may have gathered.

crystal ball with butterflies on open book

Image by GimpWorkshop from Pixabay

A WIP filing system that works (for Joanna, at least)

A recent Zoom discussion with author mates showed me that different authors have different ways of keeping their wip files under control. And being able to sort out the jigsaw pieces if the author has to go back to them, maybe years later.jigsaw pieces and book on table in disarray

You have probably heard an author say, “I know I saved that bit I deleted from my old wip. I want to use it again, but I can’t find it.” Or: “I’ve got several versions of chapter 5 and I can’t find the one I want, though I know it’s in there somewhere.”

I suffered from that too.
So, some years ago, I worked out a filing system to avoid those problems. I’ve been applying it ever since, and I promise that it works.

The Joanna wip filing system could help you, too, so that you can find what you want. If you think my system might be useful, feel free to adopt it. There’s no charge. (Though if you’d like to buy one of my books as a thank-you, I won’t be complaining…)

How to set up the Joanna wip filing system : the rule of ones

Rule 1: Create a new folder when starting a new story.
It may seem like overkill if I’m only jotting down ideas, but honestly it’s not. The folder may eventually include lots of other files relating to the story, like character studies, timelines and so on. At the start, the folder may look a little thin as you can see from a recent screenshot of my current wip folder (below), called “02 Sleuths1”.screenshot main folder sleuths1 for filing
Yes, it’s the first of a crime series, as you may have guessed. 😉
(Ignore the 02 in the folder name. It’s part of my numbering system for works in progress.)

Rule 2: Create a sub-folder for older versions within the story folder.
I call it earlier versions and it sits within the main folder (eg in 02 Sleuths1). It’s the only other thing showing in the screenshot above. The sharp-eyed among you will note that the sub-folder was updated one minute after I saved the main file. (And yes, I was writing at one in the morning. Anyone else an owl?)

Rule 3: One, and only one, working file for the wip.
I use one file from start to finish. As an example, the working file for the first of my crime series is the sleuths1.docx file shown above. That single file with the same working title will keep being updated until the wip is finished.

Rule 4: One continuous working file for the wip.
I do not have separate files for chapters. I’ve heard too many stories about the sort of confusion that approach can lead to. (Elizabeth’s blog included scary examples.)
My continuous file may be disjointed, with fragments of chapters or scenes, but the latest version is all in one single place. For example, that 12th May version of sleuths1.docx contained a completed chapter 1, a disjointed and incomplete chapter 2 including notes to self about what else needed to go in, no chapter 3, but a partial chapter 4. I’ll fill in the holes and smooth the joins on future writing days. It may seem messy, but there’s no problem of potential duplicates or competing versions.

How to use the Joanna wip filing system when you write

  1. Save the main wip file at the end of each writing session.
    In my case, that updates Sleuths1.docx (for example).
  2. Immediately do a Save As in the earlier versions folder with a name that starts with the save date.
    So that might be 191027 Gabe.docx, for example, as in the screenshot below from the sub-folder of my Christmas novella.screenshot of earlier versions folder for filing
  3. Quit Word.
    That way there is no risk of starting the next day in the wrong file.
  4. Next day, I open Word with my main wip file by double-clicking on it.
    No need to wonder which file I’m working on. There is only one in the folder. Currently, it’s sleuths1.docx.
  5. At the end of the day, I do steps 1-3 again. Simples, no?

Does it work? How?

question mark with head insideHow and why does it work? Because the most recent version of my wip is always the only one in the main folder. And because I can always go back and find exactly where I’d got to at the end of a particular day’s writing session. Every day’s complete wip-to-date is in that dated file I created with Save As after I’d saved the main file.

For example, there may be six different versions of chapter 5 spread across different dates. I can pull them all out and compare them. When I’ve found the one I want, I can copy the section of the file that I want — never work on an old original; always work on a copy — paste it into today’s open wip file and tiffle to my heart’s content. And at the end of the day, I’ll save the main wip file and a dated copy as per steps 1-3 above. So my main file will have whatever bits of the old chapter 5 have survived my day’s work. And, crucially, all the old versions of chapter 5 will be in their dated files, unchanged, for future reference.

Other wip-saving tips

These are things you probably do already. But just in case, here they are again…

exclamation mark in fireTip 1: Set Word to Save an Autorecover copy very regularly.
Mine is set to save every 3 minutes. So I can never lose more than 3 minutes of material. Maybe it won’t happen in your neck of the woods but, where I live, we often get power spikes and my desktop computer dies on me without warning. Or maybe I have fat finger syndrome and delete whole paragraphs when I didn’t mean to. It happens.
Autorecover will usually get me out of that kind of hole.

Tip 2: Set Word to always save a Backup copy.
Sometimes that’s been a lifesaver when I’ve pressed Ctrl+S at the wrong moment: for example, when I’ve just cut a chunk of text I intend to paste elsewhere using Ctrl+V.

Tip 3: Using that yy/mm/dd form of the date at the start of the file name ensures that files always sort themselves into date order (as in the screenshot above).
Using the normal day/month/year form causes problems because the computer will sort using the day of the month. All files from, say, 27th of any month and year will be grouped together. Difficult to be sure you are finding the one you really need. So I do recommend using the year/month/day format. It may not be intuitive for us but it’s what computers understand.

Tip 4: Make files in earlier versions Read-Only if you’re worried you might overwrite something you shouldn’t, perhaps when you’re looking for that elusive chapter 5. (Check Help on your particular system, Mac or PC, for how to make files read-only. Or Word Help.) This is belt-and-braces stuff but at least it guarantees you’ll be warned when you try to save over that previous file you shouldn’t be changing.

However many files I may save in earlier versions, there is still only one wip file in the main folder. As I said before 😉 I always use only one continuous working wip file.

Over to you…

Feel free to disagree. You may have a different system that works for you. But if you’ve had problems with lost material in the past, you might find the Joanna wip filing system works for you, too. If you do have a go, please let me know how you get on.
And if you have any questions, just ask.

Happy wip filing and keep safe everyone

12 thoughts on “Filing to keep your WIP safe : writing craft

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’ve been using one continuous file since computers became canny enough for big docs. Anything I cut gets saved to a temp file. And yes, every book has its own folder, which sits in a main folder for the genre. Each book has an old folder, promo doc, cover, etc. When I revise covers, text or anything else, I shift all the no longer used files to old.
    It’s a nightmare if you don’t have a system. Even if you do, docs get lost. Saving to wrong folder anyone? Downloaded and moved to wrong folder? Hair tearing department always just around the corner when it comes to technology.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Made me laugh, re hair-tearing, Liz, but of course you’re right. And I’d forgotten about the file size problems we used to have, way back when. We did have to compromise then. Not now. Sounds as though you have a very good system and most importatly you keep it up to date. Respec’

  2. Rosemary Gemmell

    Great advice and tips, Joanna. My only real difference is that I keep the continuous working file of the WIP (the main one) on my desktop so it’s right in front of my face every day! Of course, I also save it on a stick as well.

    1. Joanna Post author

      If your system works for you, Rosemary, that’s great. And I can see that it makes procrastination more difficult if the wip file is staring you in the face every morning. These days I do most of my writing on a Mac laptop where I keep a file list on the desktop in date order, newest first. So my wip file should be there, at or near the top, telling me to open it and get started.

  3. Liz Fielding

    This is great advice, Joanna. I do keep a folder for each book, but putting the date in reverse order is a really great idea. And the working doc in a separate internal folder. I will adopt both methods immediately!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Reverse order date at the start of the filename is helpful, especially if the wip-name changes over time. It’ll still always be in chronological order in the folder. Glad the blog was helpful, Liz.

  4. Louise Allen

    This made me dizzy! I have one folder per book and I write in one continuous document and save every day (with backup, of course) as a new file ‘Name of wip date’. Start the next day by saving the previous day’s as the new date. Any notes, editor’s comments etc get put in the same folder. I’m a simple soul!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Sorry if I confused you, Louise. It’s not easy to explain a system simply if you want to set it out in a way other people can follow, step by step, and also explain why. But my system isn’t much different from yours. (1) new folder for new wip (2) continuous file for wip (3) dated backup file for every day’s writing. The detail in the blog, like the date format yy/mm/dd, is stuff I’ve found useful and recommend. Up to others to adopt, or not. I’m a simple soul too, honest 😉

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Respect, Joanna! I’m slightly unnerved to be held up as an Awful Warning! But it was, alas, true. Fortunately, I’m now sailing into calmer waters. Three novels: ‘Hightland Summer’, ‘The Belvedere Tower’ and ‘Frost Fair’ are now safely with the wonderful John Hocking in the format he wants. There is still a lot of what one might call ‘backstage’ work to be done: ISBN numbers, mini biography and so on. It’s going to take time.

    But at least something is happening!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I really sympathised with your Awful Warning predicament. Good news that you’ve now got 3 novels on the way to ebooks in spite of the difficulties. You must have worked jolly hard.

      Re ISBN numbers, it takes a while to get the Nielsen thing up and running after you’ve got the numbers so it’s a good idea for you to do it soon while JH is working on the books.

  6. Elizabeth Rolls

    I already do the new file thing. But I hadn’t thought of the sub-folders. Thank you! One thing my folder always ends up containing is what I call the “Cuts” document. Every time I going to delete or substantially alter a large chunk of text I copy and paste it to the Cuts document first. That way I’ve still got the “original” version if I decide to reinstate it. Which might have happened about twice. Embarrassingly my Cuts document can end up longer than the finished book!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Horses for courses, Elizabeth. My dated earlier versions would deal with cuts too, but if your system works for you, that’s great. If I just kept a Cuts document, though, I’d find it difficult to use because I’ve got a rotten memory. I’d need to annotate each cut so that I knew when and where I’d cut it from. And if the Cuts file got really long (as yours sometimes does), how would I find anything?

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