File and storage formats:

A salutary warning about file formats – this carries on from the Vospa-Ross biography printed elsewhere on this site.

In the 1980’s Phil received a BBC ‘Model B’ computer with all the necessary add-ons to knock out a masterpiece of literature. This time words did appear and in sufficient quantity to be called a novel. Now we have a salutary warning for all writers. (Please Note Well). Phil’s files were saved onto 5.25-inch floppies with a preparatory file format incompatible with modern machines. The disks containing about 150,000 words, were put to one side when the family changed their computer to an Amstrad PCW, with its cp/m file system and 3 inch ‘encased’ floppies. Needless to say, when Phil changed over to an IBM PC with 5.25-inch floppies, the same problem presented itself. There was always hope that there would be some way of recovering the lost documents, but eventually the problem was given up on and the disks were lost or destroyed.

To make matters worse, in 1997 Phil again updated to a new computer running Windows. Again, writing commenced, this time using a computer that could read the old IBM PC 5.25-inch floppies. Although much formatting was lost, most of Phil’s work ended up being transposed onto the new system. Twenty five years later, Phil wanted to show a friend her old writing, and guess what, she had no way of getting the data on the 5.25-inch floppies on to her 2020 computer. Luckily her partner being the sort of annoying type who collects old junk, was able to cobble together a retro machine. The files eventually appeared on a modern iMac, but in an unreadable format. After much playing about with online conversion software, the original text reappeared with only one problem, many of the formatting commands had been misinterpreted by the conversion process. There were now hard carriage returns at the end of each line and many multi carriage return paragraph breaks, together with large chunks of strange shapes and characters which must have meant something in the old system, but not now.

After much trial and error, Phil came up with a remedy, first piece of advice for resolving the formatting issue, 1) keep multiple backups with different version names, and in different formats such as .txt. 2) as you create pages, keep backup copies on different media (cloud, thumb drives, multiple hard drives).

Eventually the gobbledygook in Phil’s work was deleted, and Phil was left with 10,000 carriage returns to edit out. Using ‘Search and replace’ to replace the code which produces carriage returns with nothing, was at first sight OK, (look up the ‘carriage return’ code for your computer on the web). This worked but left a document with a 90,000-word paragraph. Luckily Phil had kept copies of the converted work and was only working on second copies. Phil could now go back to the previous version (create another copy) and try again. This time actual paragraph points which consisted of multiple carriage returns were replaced with asterisks (any special character not used in the document would have done). This was done by ‘find and replace’ [carriage return code] [carriage return code], replace with [****]. At this point the paragraphs were marked by ****. Phase 2, replace [carriage return code] with nothing. Phase 3, replace [****] with [carriage return code].

All of a sudden, the paragraphs reappeared. Was Phil delighted to have the 20 year old work back? No, it fell far short of Phil’s present writing standard and was consigned to the bin.

So, my advice to you all is in 2 parts:

  1. Keep backups, at least one in the cloud, preferably 2 or more. Pcloud, Dropbox, One-drive are all good possibilities. Keep a backup on an external drive, and a backup on at least one data stick. I don’t believe there is any need to do loads of backups every minute you are working. ‘Autosave’ saving work to the cloud as you type should be good enough for daily backups, but at least every 30,000 words or so, copy your backups across multiple devices.
  2. Before you finish with the work completely, save backups in different formats. If you are working in .docx, then why not do a quick save in .txt, or rich text, possibly pdf. That way 20 years from now you will hopefully have a readable format. On that topic, if you discover that the formats I have been talking about are going to become obsolete, try to convert your work to the new format before your old equipment goes to recycling. The same advice goes for operating systems. Maybe, just maybe, in 10 or 20 years’ time, Windows 20 or 30, or MacOS 20 will no longer run your favourite word processor, so again, keep your old gear until everything is converted and running happily.