You can be the most lucid writer in the world, but without good document management skills, your writing talent may not count for much. In my time as an editor and communications specialist, I have seen clients accidentally release rough drafts into the wild, lose hours of collaborative revision in the single push of a button, and discover that tomorrow’s urgent presentation has vanished.
A robust, reliable digital file management strategy is the secret to dodging these professional pitfalls. While it may sound technical and complicated, it’s really about nothing more than being consistent, specific, and paranoid.
Label Files Clearly
When you are starting a new document, the temptation can be to jump right in, filling up that nice clean page with your ideas as quickly as possible. The annoying file-name box can feel like an unnecessary distraction, and for many people, it is an afterthought. A random descriptor is often entered and unwittingly becomes the document’s forever name. Later drafts are often equally poorly named, with a string of numbers that may or may not be cryptic.
The problem with this method of file naming is that it makes it difficult to quickly and easily identify documents and drafts later. For collaborators, clients, and others unfamiliar with your file-naming style, the problem is likely to be compounded.
Good file naming protocols can help mitigate this issue. The key is consistency: a method of naming your files that takes into account all the information pertinent to your business and any revisions that might need to be made. The order and style in which this information is included should also be consistent—remember, most digital file storage systems display files in alphabetical order, so keeping the file names consistent will help group files of a similar type together.
As a typical starting place, a good file name should include the date, a descriptor, and a version number. For example, a meeting agenda file name might look something like this: Project3AlignmentMeetingAgenda_V1_10.22.21.docx.
Other useful information might include an order number or project ID, the creator’s name or initials (if more than one person is collaborating), and/or a company name (if the document will travel outside your organization).
It is also well worth making use of the folder system offered by most file storage apps to organize your documents. Folders can be organized on multiple levels, allowing you to keep different projects, roles, and even project stages separate. For example, you might have a folder named “Dissertation” containing additional folders for “Chapter 1,” “Chapter 2,” and so on. A shared drive within an organization, similarly, might contain separate folders for different departments or competencies.
Create a protocol and use it consistently, and lost or unidentifiable documents will become a problem of the past.
Keep a Backup
For those of us who started professional life before the days of cloud storage, hitting save frequently and always having a backup are like second nature. Nowadays, however, the ease with which apps like Google Docs or OneDrive can automatically save our documents for us can make such precautions seem unnecessary. This happy delusion will persist until the first time you have a collaborator delete your contributions in a fit of pique, experience a web glitch that prevents an automatic save, or have to complete an urgent task during an extended internet outage. Keeping a back-up of your files can help you avoid heartache during these inevitable, unexpected crises.
If you already use a cloud-based system, like Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, your documents are almost certainly backed up through the cloud. However, for extra security, it’s worth regularly copying important or frequently updated folders to a secure non-cloud-based location, such as your computer’s hard drive. Likewise, if you work primarily with non-cloud-based storage, keeping a cloud-based back-up will give you similar peace of mind.
To Google-Docs or Not?
More and more organizations are turning to Google Docs and G-Suite for professional use, despite the greater functionality of desktop apps like MS Word, because of the ease with which it enables real-time collaboration on documents.
Which program you use will have a significant impact on your digital file management strategy. Easy collaboration comes with some downsides—it may be more difficult to keep track of revisions and retrieve older versions of your document. Conversely, greater functionality comes with the downside that collaboration may be slower, with collaborators required to work on drafts separately and combine drafts later. This can lead to a multiplicity of different files being generated.
Whichever version you end up working in, a robust and consistent file naming protocol will help you keep your document history straight and accessible. If your document is evolving in real time, it is worth periodically saving a draft as a separate document to enable you to return to it easily if needed. Use folders to organize multiple drafts and versions if you are collaborating on desktop-app-generated documents.
Learning how to effectively name and store files, manage document collaboration, and share files securely can mitigate all kinds of risk and reduce the time you spend each day trying to locate files and identify drafts. Once internalized, these skills can transform a talented writer into a professional superhero.