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I decided to write an article on backup best practices thinking I could share the lessons I have learned over my years as both student and lecturer. I have watched countless students – from straight A students to those scraping a pass – walk into my office with an ashen face (often turning into full blown tears). Their work is gone.

You cannot fake the gut wrenching, blood draining, numbing realisation that you cannot submit your work.

Whether it is hours of work over weeks, or 12 straight hours crammed in before the deadline, the grief is the same. Corrupted, stolen, lost, driven over, saved over, computer crashed, in an out of date version. I’ve heard all the stories – both the genuine and the chancers. Now, remember – lecturers can generally tell when it is a genuine case of backup failure, or when someone is just trying a last ditch effort. You cannot fake the gut wrenching, blood draining, numb making realisation that you cannot submit your work.

So what are backup best practices?

Below are some tips for what to always do when working on something you cannot lose:


  • My first response to students after the obligatory commiserations is to say, always email yourself your drafts of your work as you go A new email received on a cellphonealong. We have Gmail, Google Drive and other online platforms. Use them. At least you will have something to show that you have genuinely been working on it for a while. An email from 2 weeks before the due date containing a working draft will usually encourage leniency. The time stamping of an email will often be your saviour.


  • Copies can be emailed to yourself, and a parent or friend. Just in case. Note: do not email a friend who is doing the same course as you! I have seen many good students have their work stolen by ‘friends’ and submitted as their own. Even if you are copied unknowingly, you will still be called up for cheating until you can’t prove you weren’t complicit

The Cloud

  • If you haven’t already discovered it, Google Drive is a great free option in place of Microsoft. Google Docs replaces Microsoft Word seamlessly and Drive is cloud based so not computer dependent. For more on this see the upcoming post on usefully free software.
  • Save a draft to Dropbox, or even, work directly out of your Dropbox folder (save your document in Dropbox and work from there).

Flash Drives

  • The previous two practices are internet dependenta wooden usb on a tree stump (to a degree as you can use Google Docs in offline mode). Ideally, have two flash drives (or any USB storage devices – flash drives are easiest to transport and hide). One stationary (i.e. stays at home or in your dorm room), one mobile.
  • Do a backup, at least once a week. It may seem like a hack, but there is no bigger hack than restarting an assignment from scratch…or failing a course because you didn’t submit a compulsory assessment task.

It may seem like a hack, but here is no bigger hack than restarting an assignment from scratch.

Beware overconfidence

I was confident that I could offer my pearls of wisdom in this post. I had also never experienced a backup catastrophe in my years of undergrad, post grad and working. As the saying goes, “pride comes before a fall”. I was recently reminded that the only way to safeguard yourself is constant vigilance (Harry Potter fans will understand the gravity of that statement).

To reinforce how unexempt you are from the twists of fate, I offer the below illustration:

After submitting my master’s thesis for examination, my husband was sent to work in England for 3 months, and I went with. I knew that I had many ‘second to last’ copies of my master’s thesis. However, I also knew I only had one flash drive (henceforth known as ‘the precious’) with the final, ‘printed for examination’ version. I guarded it with my life. While I meant to make backups, I got overconfident and lazy and didn’t. While waiting for the examination process to run its course, I took ‘the precious’ overseas with me as I expected to do the final corrections while there. That didn’t happen and once back in SA, I sat down at my computer with the drive I had dragged from Oxford to Stonehenge. I plugged it in, ready to finish my work.

It was the wrong flash drive. I had the silver one. I realised I needed the blue ona badge that reads don't panice.

Prior to leaving, we had packed up and moved out of our flat. So somewhere among around 30 boxes and 2 properties was a small piece of blue plastic and metal…with my sanity on it. It is worth noting that fastidious backing up meant that I had many copies of the previous draft of my thesis, meaning that this mistake could have been frustratingly time-consuming, but not catastrophic. I am happy to say I got lucky and found it, however, I must stress that I have seen the reverse more often than not. The gods of academia were just kind to me. Needless to say, I made 2 more drive copies, emailed every family member a copy, and ‘dropboxed’ the entire contents of the flash drive.

Backup best practices take practice

Getting into a habit of backing up work is non-negotiable, so start working on it now. Work it into your weekly schedule like doing the washing or going shopping. It’s a life skill that will pay for itself tenfold. Don’t wait until you experience a crisis to start employing backup best practices.

This article was originally published on 02 May 2017

About the author
Jax Heilgendorff

I have watched the development of for years and marveled at the ingenuity and passion shown from the start. As a Linguistics major, university lecturer and burgeoning copywriter, the Advantage Learn story is one close to my heart. I hope to add to the development of educational thinking in South Africa by helping to relate topics and create spaces for thought on the challenges and opportunities facing South African learners, students, and parents.

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