Cloud Backup for Writers, Part 2: Using Dropbox

If you read my last post, you should understand why I believe writers should use cloud storage to back up their writing. However, even if you’ve signed up for a cloud service, you might not be making use all of its features, either because you don’t know about them or you haven’t figured out how to set them up.

dropboxlogoPerforming file backup can be a tedious and, therefore, often overlooked task, even when you recognize how important it is. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just save your writing on your local computer as you normally do, and then it would automatically back itself up to the cloud? Well, that automatic sync feature is something you can do with Dropbox, provided you set it up correctly.

Let’s take a look at using Dropbox and how to take advantage of some of its best features. For these instructions, I’m using Windows 8.1; if you’re using an older version of Windows or a Mac, you might find the screenshots and some of the steps slightly different for you, but generally the principles should work the same. 

Setting Up Dropbox

You can sign up for a Dropbox account by going to You can get a basic account for free, but it requires an email address. As of this writing, the free account provides 2 GB of storage, and when you first log in, you can complete a tutorial and some other tasks that will bump that number up slightly. (The website walks you through all of that if you’re interested.)

One of those steps is to install Dropbox on your local computer. You can use Dropbox through its web interface alone, but if you do, you’re missing out on the automated syncing features that make this really useful as part of an automated backup strategy. So: Install the app! As I mentioned, you’ll be prompted to download the app when you first sign up for an account; if you’re already using Dropbox but didn’t install the app, you can install it by logging on to your account on the Dropbox website, the selecting Install from the account menu at the top right of the screen.

Follow the installation procedures for your system. As soon as the Dropbox application is installed, it automatically launches setup:

Dropbox Setup screen

Dropbox Setup screen

1. Enter the same email address and password you used to sign up your account on the Dropbox website.

2. Click the Sign In button. Assuming you entered your information correctly, you should see a success screen something like this:

Congratulations screen after successful set up

Congratulations screen after successful set up

Because the idea is to establish a backup system that syncs your files automatically to the cloud, you need to set the location where you want the Dropbox folder; this folder will be the location on your computer where you save all your writing documents. For instance, if you typically create a folder called Writing inside your Documents folder (or My Documents folder) for all your writing projects, then you want the Dropbox folder to go there instead.

3. Click Advanced settings at the bottom of the Congratulations screen, which brings up the Advanced settings screen. Under Dropbox location, you’ll see that by default it will create the Dropbox folder at C:\Users\<name>\Dropbox, where <name> is your username.

4. To set a different location for the Dropbox folder, click in the address box under Dropbox location and select Other from the dropdown menu, then navigate to the folder or location where you want to place the Dropbox folder. With your intended location selected in the navigation window, click OK.

Dropbox Advanced settings screen

Dropbox Advanced settings screen

That’s everything you need to get started, so click the Open my Dropbox folder button to look at a couple of additional features. A Windows Explorer window opens, which looks something like this:

Windows Explorer with Dropbox shortcut

Windows Explorer with Dropbox shortcut

Using Dropbox on Your Computer

In the screenshot above, note that the installation has added a Dropbox link in the Favorites section of the left sidebar, so you can quickly and easily find this folder even if you didn’t set the location or you later forget where you put it. I’m a fan of the judicious use of shortcuts such as this for important locations that you’ll visit frequently, but if you don’t want it there, you need only right-click it and select Remove to get rid of it.

Within the Dropbox folder, you can create additional folders—your Writing folder or whatever structure of folders you would normally use to save your work. The key is to use this location for all primary storage of your creative documents. When you start a new document, save it here; when you’re continuing work on something, open the version of the document that lives here. Anything you place in the Dropbox folder will sync automatically to the cloud—that is, to your Dropbox account, which you set up on the website.

Any folders you create within the Dropbox folder locally will be replicated in the cloud, making it easy to find what you need no matter which version you’re accessing. Additionally, if you use more than one computer regularly—for instance, you have a desktop PC where you typically work but also travel frequently with a laptop—you can install the Dropbox app and link your Dropbox account to each of your devices. Any changes you make either to documents or your folder structure are replicated to each instance, keeping everything consistent.

After you install the Dropbox app, you’ll also see a new Dropbox icon on the right side of your menu bar, which provides access to some useful features. Right-click the icon to open a pop-up menu, which looks something like this:

Dropbox pop-up menu from the menu bar

Dropbox pop-up menu from the menu bar

This menu gives you instant access to your most recently used files; click one of the files, and Windows Explorer opens the folder containing that file. You can also open your Dropbox folder directly with the link at the bottom or go to your account on the Dropbox website.

Click the gear icon at the top right of this pop-up menu for additional choices. For instance, you’ll see the percentage of your total storage that you’re currently using. If you select Help center, you’ll go to an FAQ web page that might answer additional questions you have about the service. You can also select Preferences to adjust the settings you’ve chosen:

Options on the Accounts tab of the Dropbox Preferences screen

Options on the Accounts tab of the Dropbox Preferences screen

Your choices on the General tab are self-explanatory. On the Account tab, you’ll find a couple of useful features. First, if you ever want to move your Dropbox folder from its initial placement, use the Move button here under Location. That way Dropbox still knows where everything is and you shouldn’t run into syncing problems or “file not found” errors when you try to open a document.

Second, the Selective Sync feature lets you omit folders within the Dropbox folder from syncing. For instance, say you’ve got a folder of pictures that you use for inspiration for a specific project, and you keep that folder under the project folder, which itself is in the Dropbox folder. But you don’t really want to take up your storage space with large picture files. Use the Selective Sync feature to navigate to the folder of pictures, and clear the check mark from the folder (or folders) you want to omit. (You might need to click the Switch to Advanced view button to navigate below the first level of folders.)

Additional Features

One of the great benefits to writers of using Dropbox is the ability to share files or folders. For instance, you could use this feature to exchange critiques or collaborate on documents, particularly if you have a large group where maintaining an email list becomes cumbersome. You have several options for sharing, either by just sending a link or by inviting others to access the specified resource; the second method requires the recipient to have a Dropbox account of their own. I won’t go into detail about how you set up sharing, but you can find the details in the Dropbox Help Center.

For the security-conscious, Dropbox has the option to use two-step verification. If you opt in for this method, whenever you log in to Dropbox with your username and password, Dropbox will send a code to your mobile phone, which you then have to enter as well to complete your access. The benefit of this security method is that even if the site gets hacked and passwords stolen, no one can access your account without also having your phone. You can enable two-step verification on the Security tab of your account Settings page on the website.

Of course, Dropbox also has a mobile app, which is available for most platforms (sadly, not Windows Phone). Using the app on your phone is essentially just like using it on the desktop as far as syncing file or folder changes. Depending on your mobile device, doing any major work might not be something you’d choose to attempt, but I have a document where I can make quick notes on ideas, and I can open that document across any device at pretty much any time.

Automated Backup Made Easy

I hope this gives you a good start for using Dropbox if you weren’t using it before, or gives you some new ideas if you’ve been using it already. The key to remember for automated sync is that you use the Dropbox folder on your local computer to save your writing documents. Of course, you have to have an Internet connection for any sync to take place—you’re backing up to the cloud (i.e., the Internet), remember. However, if you work offline (without an Internet connection), Dropbox will sync any changes or new documents as soon as you resume your connection—no worries about losing any backup.

Next up in this series will be my take on how you might use SkyDrive—which, if you didn’t see, was just renamed OneDrive by Microsoft yesterday—to get similar automated protection.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins


4 thoughts on “Cloud Backup for Writers, Part 2: Using Dropbox

  1. Pingback: Resolve to BACK IT UP! | Writers' Rumpus

  2. Pingback: Cloud Backup for Writers, Part 3: Using OneDrive | The Weird World of B. K. Winstead

  3. Pingback: Cloud Backup: A Brief Primer for the Practicing Writer | The Weird World of B. K. Winstead

  4. Pingback: Backup Day, and a Plea to Solve Your Tech Problems | The Weird World of B. K. Winstead

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