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Pat Haggerty: Leveraging Dropbox for Writing Synchronization and Backup

pat_haggertyPut on your thinking hats RU readers and writers – today’s guest Pat Haggerty is going to tell us all about Dropbox – if you don’t have it, you’re going to want it by the end of this post!

One of the first computers that I ever owned was a 1983 Texas Instruments luggable. It had no hard drive (because it had two floppies), a two-tone monitor, and weighed just about enough to moor a decent sized boat. It may not have had much power by todays standards, but it did have a fully functional word processor:  Wordstar.

photo_TIPPC_02The first time I totally lost a paper that I had spent days writing must have been early in 1984. I was working on a glass top, wrought-iron table in the garden room at my parents home. The air smelled earthy and wet and a huge bougainvillea was blooming in the corner next to me and threatening to stab me if I drifted any closer. I was almost finished with my essay, a terrible story about bicycle racing, when I attempted to move to a more comfortable position away from the inch long bougainvillea thorns by sliding the computer a bit to one side. The power cord popped out of the back and the screen suddenly dropped to black.

I was slapping the top of the box even as the fans spun down when I realized what had happened. I crawled under the table, praying like I thought the catholic priest who was expecting this paper in the morning would, and plugged the machine back in. When I relaunched Wordstar though, I discovered that not only was nothing saved from the work I had done that day, but something about the sudden power drop had corrupted the media I had my paper stored on and my entire work was lost. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to have to start over from scratch.

Man, my heart’s picking up pace just thinking about that day.

Today we live in a drastically more sophisticated world, technologically speaking, and with greater technology comes greater responsibility. Think about it, how many devices do you work on? I take notes on my android phone, read and do more notes on my iPad, write on an Apple laptop from a different city almost every week, oh and I also work occasionally at home on a Windows laptop I have there, or on my wife’s machine, or her laptop, etc., etc., etc.

And did I mention that I live in southern Mississippi? Yea, right on the Gulf and now that I think about it, next year is going to be the 10th anniversary of Katrina and the house I lost to that windy bitch.


As writers, there are two interconnected computer issues that are never far from most of our minds: backup and synchronization.

Backup: I’m gonna define as the storing of a duplicate to any work in a secure location. That’s what I was wishing I had that morning back in my parents garden room. I swear, that damn bougainvillea was laughing at me, but I digress.

Synchronization I wasn’t worried about it back in 1984, I mean who would have more than one machine? For now lets define synchronization as the duplication of work across one or more devices (computers, tablets, phones, etc.).

There are a bunch of ways to handle backup and synchronization (B&S). I’ve tried automated external drives that came with software to make a daily backup, but they only backed up a single time each day and they didn’t do anything to help with synchronization. I’ve tried USB keys which handled B&S fairly well, but the process required me to actually remember to make the copy and to carry the drive wherever I needed to work next. I also had to remember to reverse the process or I’d end up with more recent work on one machine and not on the drive or the other machines. I’ve even tried emailing my work to myself but I don’t want to think about what a duplicated mess that created.

Finally I got frustrated and made myself a list of the features that I needed:

  1. Automated and reliable. I don’t want something I’m going to have to think about. I may forget the name of the agent I just met, but I want my backups made every time I write, without thought or action from me.
  2. Current. I don’t want to only back up once a day. I want something as close to real time as possible.
  3. Online. After giving it a lot of thought, I really wanted to synchronize across my different devices and that almost always requires storage in some offsite location. I also wanted a copy stored off site.
  4. Secure. This is my work and I want to make sure it stays my work. If I store a copy of my writing online or in the cloud or whenever, I want to feel like no one is going to be able to get access to my stuff but me.
  5. Flexible. Windows devices, Apple devices, Android devices, so many devices and I want something that’s going to work on whatever combination I want to use.

After doing a bit of online research I determined that a number of providers would meet my needs including Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, SugarSync, etc.. I went with Dropbox because it was a known entity and easily met all my criteria. I also had some work partners that were using it and I’d heard good things. So though the rest of this article discusses Dropbox, be aware that any number of providers would do just as good or better of a job with what we’re trying to accomplish.


So if you’re a author and you want to maximize and optimize your backup and synchronization using Dropbox, here’s what you should do.

  1. Make up a secure password that you can use with your Dropbox account. If you already have a Dropbox account, change the password now to something secure. If you’d like to see if your password’s any good, check it out over at: https://www.microsoft.com/security/pc-security/password-checker.aspx [1]
  2. Head on over to https://www.dropbox.com [2] and signup for an account (if you don’t already have one). You will get 2GB storage for free and can buy as much space as you need. If this is all new to you then just try the free plan until you decide if Dropbox is for you or not. Personally, I like the $100 a year plan because it gives me space to backup and synchronize digital photos, writing, anything I need. The pay “Pro” plan also comes with an added Dropbox feature called Packrat, which allows you to access any version of any document you’ve ever stored in Dropbox. For more information on pricing see https://www.dropbox.com/pricing [3] For info on Packrat see: https://www.dropbox.com/help/113/en [4]
  3. Once you have a Dropbox account, download and install the Dropbox application on each of your computers and hand-held devices. You will have to log them all into your Dropbox account so make sure you have your credential’s handy. Acquire the app from the app store on your devices (phones, iPads, etc) and https://www.dropbox.com/downloading [5] for your computers.
  4. The Dropbox application will create a new folder on your computers named Dropbox. Create a folder within the Dropbox named Writing.
  5. For each of your written projects, create a new sub folder under Writing with a name that you associate with said project.  So if you’re writing a new book named Cool Title then you should place it in the Dropbox/CoolTitle folder.

And that’s it.

But what exactly is happening?

Dropbox operates by automatically copying anything in the Dropbox folder on your machine up to the Dropbox servers and then down to any other machines that you have attached to the same accounts. Rather than automatically copying your files to something like your phone, it provides access to the files through the Dropbox app, but in an on-demand kind of way. So let’s take this scenario:

  1. You are editing your work in your editor of choice: Scrivener, Word, Wordperfect (don’t laugh, it’s what Nora Roberts writes everything in, and the blue screen Dos version too), etc.
  2. Your Editor does an automatic save.
  3. Since you followed my advice above and are working on a file saved under the Dropbox folder, the moment your editor saves, Dropbox will notice that there’s a file it’s watching that hasn’t been synchronized to the server. If you watch the Dropbox icon which you’ll find to the left of the clock, it will change from the, “Everything up to date icon” DB UpToDateto the, “Synchronizing now” DB Sync Nowicon . When that spinning arrow goes away, the file has been successfully copied to the Dropbox server and is being synchronized to your other machines.

Easy Breezy.

So let’s review. If you are an author and you are researching and writing a piece, then Dropbox will help you maintain peace of mind because it is:

  1. Automated and reliable. As long as you are saving into a sub folder under the Dropbox folder, then it is automatically synchronized to off site backup and to your other machines. You don’t have to do anything special, it just happens.
  2. Current. Since Dropbox synchronizes anything that’s been updated, the copy in its server is as recent as your latest save. Since every modern editor I can think of autosaves while you work, at most you could lose a few minutes of work (assuming you’re online).
  3. Online. Copies of your work are saved online and on your other machines (if you have any). If you’re house burns down or washes away, your work is still safe on the Dropbox servers.
  4. Secure. Dropbox actually saves into the Amazon S3 cloud. If you would like technical details, please see: https://www.dropbox.com/help/7/en [6]
  5. Flexible. Dropbox works on just about any operating system and any hand held device. Can’t get much more flexible than that.


Some last minute points and just so you know, I’m now wearing my hat with the little propeller on top:

The internet is a den of inequity. How can my work truly be safe in Dropbox?

Honestly? The weakest point in the Dropbox paradigm isn’t the service, it’s you and your family. If you use a weak password, run a machine with no antivirus, sync to your kids machine and they download free games all the time, and the like, then you are asking to be hacked. If someone can get access to your machine, or that first pet name that you use for every single password, then someone could get access to your Dropbox account.

Truly, if you go read about the security Amazon uses up at that S3 service of theirs, it’s something else. http://aws.amazon.com/articles/1697?_encoding [7]  It’s no wonder it’s used by banks, big corporations, me… 🙂

If I were a mad fan and I just had to have the next In Death book before Nora released it, and if I knew she was using a good password and Dropbox? Then I’d go break into her house and steal her computer. That would be a thousand times easier than trying to hack Dropbox.

What can I do to make my Dropbox stored data as secure as possible?

I’ve already given the highlights, but to summarize:

  1. Pick a good, strong password
  2. Run antivirus on your computers (I like Symantec for Windows and Intego for Mac)
  3. If you have your phone logged into your account, put a password on it in case you ever lose it. If you do lose it, log into your Dropbox account and have it disconnect that device from your account.
  4. Don’t sync to computers that you don’t need to sync to. I’m sure you love your kids, but they probably don’t need a copy of all your work.
  5. Enable two step verification so if anyone tries to add a machine to your account, it sends you a text message for approval: https://www.dropbox.com/help/363/en [8]
  6. Use common sense when it comes to your physical machines. You know, don’t leave it on your train while you slip out to buy some Evian.

What if I can’t find my Dropbox folder?

Make sure you actually installed the Dropbox application I mentioned earlier. Then click the blue folder icon near your clock DB UpToDate and choose Dropbox Folder

My files aren’t being copied to the server, why not?

You must not have saved them into the Dropbox folder I just showed you how to find. That, or the machine isn’t actively connected to the internet.

How can I make sure the files are actually being backed up?

  1. Navigate over to the Dropbox site and log into your account https://www.dropbox.com [2]
  2. Scroll down until you find your Writing folder. Click on it.
  3. Click into the folder of whatever you’re working on.
  4. Open the file and see if it is current.

Will you guarantee that my files won’t ever be hacked?

Of course not. Anything you place onto a computer is at risk of hacking. All you can do is take reasonable precautions and I think Dropbox has done more than their share.

Can I share folders or files with other people?

Yes, from your machine right click on the folder or file in Dropbox that you’d like to share and select Share Dropbox Link. Now email that link to whomever you’re sharing with and they will have access to that file or folder.

How do I know what I’ve shared and how can I turn that share off?

Log into the Dropbox website using your credentials. On the left side you will see a folder named Sharing and one named Links. Navigating into those folders will let you know what you are sharing, if it has any security (you can grant folder access to selected individuals), and will allow you to un-share things.

Can I ask you question?

Sure, please use the comments form below and ask away.


Tawny Weber and friends join us on Wednesday to talk about the Lucky 7 Bad Boys Contemporary Romance Boxed Set [9]


Bio: After four years in the USMC, Patrick Haggerty studied Actuarial Science and Computers at Georgia State University. He has spent the past 15+ years developing and delivering technical training courses for Learning Tree International. On the side he has a successful consulting practice doing web application development for clients ranging from the United State Marines to Delta Airlines.

Seven years ago, stuck reading a mediocre book in yet another hotel, Patrick decided to try his hand at fiction. He may not be published, but these days you are much more likely to find him spending his evenings writing romance, than code. Patrick is an active member of RWA, RWAustralia, RW New Zealand, and is VP of Membership for Gulf Coast Romance Writers of America, and VP of OIRWA.

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12 Comments To "Pat Haggerty: Leveraging Dropbox for Writing Synchronization and Backup"

#1 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On January 28, 2014 @ 12:53 am

Ooooh, man, this hits home. One day about a year ago I got the Blue Screen of Death when I turned my computer on. I was afraid I’d lost the whole ball of wax. We went to Best Buy, where we were told to bring in the computer, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Instead, we read all the labels on the antivirus packages and found there was a Kaspersky program that sounded like it could recover my data. We bought it, and it did. I don’t do backups every day, mainly because I’m not writing every day. When I AM writing, I do backups constantly. I also use Dropbox and I have a backup device that stores data. But it doesn’t sound like I’m doing enough, based on your post today. Thanks very much for the suggestions – I’m going to get to work implementing them.

Thanks for a great – and very scary! – post.

#2 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 28, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

Hey Becke,

Glad it helps.

#3 Comment By Carrie Spencer On January 28, 2014 @ 9:47 am

Morning Pat!

Great post…I use dropbox all the time. I hadn’t read about Packrat though, that sounds like something I NEED…=)

Thanks for the how to share a dropbox file link…I have people do that to me all the time, and I never knew how they did it!

I’ve not installed dropbox on my cell…how does that work? I have an Android device, but can’t imagine I could read some of my spreadsheets on it…

Thanks for a great topic!


#4 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 28, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

When you install the Dropbox app on your phone or tablet it gives you access to anything in your Dropbox account. For me it’s handy if I need to take a look at a file I have up in Dropbox and can’t wait till I get on a larger device. As you pointed out, it might not be fun trying to work much with the file on such a small screen, but it’s still nice to be able to get access.

Another cool thing about Dropbox on a phone is that you can set it up to auto-upload any pictures you take next time you are somewhere you get WiFi access. That way you have a backup copy of your pics up in Dropbox and thus have access to them from anywhere.

Please note: while I love that all my pictures are backed up through Dropbox, they can eat space quickly.

#5 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 28, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

Glad you liked it Carrie!

#6 Comment By Anna Labno On January 28, 2014 @ 11:42 am

Is there an easy way to copy a lot of files into Dropbox?

Thank you!

#7 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 28, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

Hey Anna,

Once you have the Dropbox application installed on a computer, it creates that Dropbox folder I mentioned in my post. Anything you copy into that folder is automatically loaded into Dropbox. So if you have a whole folder of files, just move it to the Dropbox folder on your machine and ta-da, it’s in Dropbox.

That’s how I first moved all my past written work and pictures into Dropbox.

Good luck!

#8 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 28, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

In case any of you are wondering, it is possible to selectively limit what files are copied to a particular computer that’s synchronized to your Dropbox account. For example, my Wife’s machine has the master copy of all our digital family photos. I really don’t need, nor do I have space on my tiny Air laptop for a copy of all those pictures. So I told Dropbox that my Air didn’t need a copy of those particular files.

How do you make that work?

1) Put all the files in a particular folder under Dropbox. So in my example I have Dropbox/PhotoArchive

2) Click your Dropbox icon over near the clock and select Gear Icon | Preferences | Advanced | Selective Sync: Change Settings…

3) Uncheck whichever folder you don’t need a copy of on this particular machine.

That’s it. And remember, if you ever need access to those files from anywhere, you can always get a copy directly from the Dropbox website.

Happy writing.

#9 Comment By Carrie Spencer On January 28, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

Holy cow! That was worth the price of admission! lol…I didn’t know you could do that…

How private are your files Pat? Can everything that’s in your public folder be seen, or does it all require a password to see any of it?


#10 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 29, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

By default, the files you put in the public folder are visible to anyone who has a Dropbox account. If you manually share a folder, you can decide who has access.

If you ever want to go back and check who has access to what:
1) Log into dropbox.com

2) Click Sharing

3) Locate the folder you are investigating in the list of shared folders and click Options

4) Add or remove access

If there’s a folder that is not shared in anyway, then it’s only visible to you. Dropbox is serious about your privacy, it’s the lifeblood of their business.

#11 Comment By Carrie Spencer On January 28, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

Oh..can I add one thing? I discovered that Dropbox can retrieve any of your older files from the past 30 days. So, if you’ve written a story, but liked the version you had 3 weeks ago, you can revert back to that file.

Uh…I don’t remember HOW i did it, just that it worked! =)


#12 Comment By Pat Haggerty On January 29, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

And if you have the Pro (pay) version of Dropbox it keeps those older file versions forever and not just 30 days.

To access older versions of your files you:
1) Log into your dropbox.com account

2) Locate the file you’re interested in and select it. Don’t click directly on the file name or it will open the file. Click somewhere else on the line (like on the file type). It should highlight the line in blue.

3) On the menu that appears just above the file list, click the More link and choose Previous Versions.