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The Perils of the Paperless Office
by Moira Allen
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I confess that in the early years of the so-called paperless office, I was skeptical. I can still recall the days when, yes, I actually printed out all my e-mails! And there are still many things I prefer to do on paper, such a proofread. But in the last decade I've become a wholehearted convert to the concept of going paperless. All my important records are electronic, along with copies of all my writers, correspondence, and contracts.
Which is all well and good, until technology turns around and bites one in the hard drive! My first inkling that all was not perfect in paperless land was when a customer from my distant past suddenly made contact and asked if I would be interested in re-issuing a book I'd self-published back in 1992!
Now think back, if you can, to 1992. There was no Internet. I was contemplating updating my music collection from tapes to those newfangled CDs! I had a Macintosh, because Macs made it possible, for the very first time, for a writer to "desktop-publish." This meant one could design a book and send it straight to a printer without having to pay as much as $10 per page for typesetting. It was awesome!
Unfortunately, sales of this particular book were far from awesome, so in 1999, I donated my remaining stock to a ministry with branches throughout the country. Turns out, they've been using it ever since, but have been reduced to scrounging for used copies online. So, more than 20 years after the book was first published, they asked if I could possibly reprint it for them.
Could I? My heart sang. How simple that would be today, with print-on-demand. Why, I'd touch up my electronic copy, load it to CreateSpace, design a new cover, and in a matter of days -- hours, even! -- I'd have a new edition ready to deliver. Imagine a Cinderella moment, with me dancing about the room accompanied by twittering bluebirds and happy forest creatures.
Then (again, for those of us old enough to remember record-players), imagine that nasty scratching sound as the music stops and the needle drags across the vinyl...
My electronic files, though they claimed to be "Word," turned out to be full of gibberish. Every special character and formatting code had converted to something alien. OK, fine, I thought. I have a PDF file. I'll just convert that to word and... Um... It won't convert or OCR.
Then I remembered... Did I mention Macs? My book had been "published" in a wonderful, long-discontinued program called Pagemaker (which was why the PDF from that program couldn't recognize text). Worse, it had been written in a lovely old Mac program called FullwritePro. My Word files weren't really Word files at all, but were the best Word could do in scavenging the old text.
And so, without the help of bluebirds or happy forest creatures, I've spent a week recreating my book from a paper copy. How? By dismembering a copy, running it through the scanner, creating a PDF, and then converting that PDF back to Word. And then fixing all the intriguing OCR errors that result from this conversion, the most entertaining (but possibly least useful) being the program's tendency to convert the word "hurt" to the word "butt."
It has been slow slogging, but easier than trying to convert the chapters of gibberish, and it's almost done. It has also given me reason to be very thankful that paper hasn't vanished from our lives. Little did I know, dear reader, I had yet another lesson to learn on the perils of paperless-ness.
The second lesson arose when I needed to look up an old bit of correspondence. That's when I discovered that Word files I'd created prior to 1999 no longer opened in word! Apparently, Microsoft never tires of finding ways to punish those of us who had the audacity to use Macs. The only way to open such a file is to move it to a "trusted" folder, whereupon I can open it and resave it in a newer form of Word. This becomes even more interesting because my husband has literally hundreds of pre-1999 Word files in the archive -- all of which, in my "spare" time, I will need to move to a "trusted" folder, open, and resave.
The point of all this -- yes, there is a point -- is that one cannot assume that just because you have "saved" something electronically, it will be available to you forever and whenever. Chances are good that it won't. Think about the many ways in which technologies have changed in the last couple of decades. Anyone remember "floppy disks"? When my husband changed jobs in 1993, we spent hours downloading his files onto diskettes. Years later, I converted an entire shoebox of those diskettes (many of which had "died") to a single CD-ROM. That archive has since migrated from CD to DVD to "external drive," and I'm sure it will migrate again, possibly to Klingon data crystals.
Think about your e-mail for a moment. If you use webmail, chances are you don't store your e-mails on your own computer. They reside on a server somewhere. If you ever change e-mail providers, or if something happens to that server, your entire e-mail history could vanish. (This has happened to me.) Every agreement, submission, interview, or contract you've saved in your e-mail files could be gone forever. The risk is even greater if you use an e-mail address associated with your own domain; individual domain hosting services may have fewer backups than, say, Google or Yahoo. Consider downloading and saving important e-mail files to your hard drive.
If you change or upgrade computer systems, don't assume everything you've saved will still be accessible. If you've saved files in "legacy" programs that no longer exist, don't assume you can still access them. (My sister lost a chunk of a personal journal that she'd written in WordPerfect; my first novel, written in FullwritePro, was salvageable, but "reconstructing" it is going to be a challenge!) Don't assume that a file created in an early version of Acrobat can be converted back to Word today.
If you have stored files in "legacy" programs that no longer function, don't delay in attempting to update or restore them. Often, conversion programs can still be found for such files, but as time passes, they'll become harder and harder to locate. If you've stored files on CDs, make sure that these are still "readable" - it's a good idea to back them up onto an external drive.
I'm still a firm believer in the paperless office. I am still an advocate of "backing up" your work. But backing it up is only half the battle. To continue to protect your work and make sure that you never lose those old writings, letters, and contracts, you must remain vigilant. Make sure that your archives are always stored on a medium that is accessible to you today, even if that means, every few years, transferring them from some older medium. Make sure that older files can still be opened by today's programs, even if that means converting them from the program in which they were first created.
And most of all, never assume that something is so old that you will "never" need it again!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.