A Tree Grows in Save-Land


Have you ever been working on a creative project on your computer and you reach a point where  the work looses its spark and starts to go downhill? It's a painful scenario in which the creative potential of your digital tools somehow destroys the idea you were chipping away at. This is a problem I've struggled with, and instead of giving up on all of my digitally-based artistic endeavors and going back to finger painting, I've decided to try a new approach to how I save my work. 

What I'm talking about is a "naming convention" where you save multiple versions of your work. It's a simple workflow adjustment that will help you stay in tune with the evolutionary arc of your projects. This plan is going to require just a little bit more organization on your part and the forming of some new file saving habits. It takes a lot of discipline to form new habits, but in the long run this practice will really pay off. It doesn't require that you fuss with data recovery software (although it's always a good idea to have that kind of software running in the background). Here's the skinny... 

The basic methodology is simple. All of the files for a single project (whether it's a song, an image, a film, etc.) should be saved in its own folder. As you work, rather than just hitting Save, you instead select Save As and give the file a new name. You don't have to select Save As with every little edit you make, only when you make a change that impacts your work in a significant way.

When you select Save As, you don't want to give the file any old name that pops into your head. You should instead use a regimented naming system. The file names you use are the key to this whole thing. I save each version of my work with a name that starts with the date. This is where it's going to start sounding backwards, but bear with me. I put the year first, the month second, and the day last. Arranging the date in this order will keep the files numerically organized. The next part of my file name is the current time the file was saved. After that I put a simple note. Once I have a working title I can add that in before the note. It looks something like this: 

10.03.01 - 855pm - bass noise
10.03.01 - 917pm - with noise kick

Here's an idea of what this ends up looking like on your computer:

If you use the method described in this post, you'll be able to quickly locate and open an older version of the project you're working on. This way, if your work has transformed into a completely different beast, you'll be able to quickly review earlier versions to see if you're happy with the direction it's taken. This is just one approach to a naming convention. If you have a similar (or radically different) method for saving your work, we'd love to hear about it in the comments section. 

Discussion 3

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Depending on what I'm working on and what program I'm in, it can vary.

For instance, in an important Final Cut project, I might use something like "Project 4-9-2010" and go from there.  I've always been keeping the date at the end, but I do like the method you mentioned above, and might try it out.

Always have the master folder, and sometimes use letters to distinguish major changes.  So within a folder I might have:

Project 4-9-2010

Project 4-10-2010

Project B 4-11-2010

and so on.  Of course, "Project" is filled in with whatever the actual title is...

This seems like a very good system. On the photo side of things, Lightroom lets you do this in-program -- you can create a "snapshot" of an image, saving all of your settings. I wonder if audio software will integrate a similiar system in the future? It seems like it would be something that would be nice to do within the application.

I've been using a technique similar to this for about the last 10 years for my important projects.  It can take some getting used to, but in the long run, it's a great way to work.

If something mysteriously gets messed up, you always have a convenient backup to go to that's pretty recent, and like Sam says, it can be fun to go back and watch the evolution of a project.  It also lets you go back and make multiple branches from one spot.  If you take your project to a midpoint, but then want to go in 2 different ways for the ending, this makes it easy to have parallel versions of the same project.