The Born Freelancer on Averting Deadline Disaster After Data Loss

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in bornfreel2the comments. 

For a writer on a deadline it’s probably the worst nightmare imaginable.

You have just spent hours honing your latest work.

It could be the result of a glitch in your software. Or a sudden loss of household power. Or even that nearby cold cup of coffee suddenly dumping its contents into your keyboard.

One moment it was all there on the screen. The next moment (or perhaps a few moments later after a reboot) your work is gone.

You feel nothing but abject panic in the pit of your stomach.

Then you remember you have always backed up – or have an automatic back up protocol in place – and the panic subsides. You can just revert to your last saved draft. Whew!

But what if you forgot to back up? Or what if your back up software somehow malfunctioned? What if you face total data loss?

You now face deadline disaster.

What do you do?

If you work for any length of time in this business you will eventually face this scenario. In fact, given our reliance upon increasingly complex technology, you will possibly encounter it more than once.

You will initially panic. OMG! Panic leads to denial. This can’t be happening. Then to anger. Stupid laptop! Then resolve. I must act! 

It’s time to stare down disaster into oblivion.

I have faced this crisis maybe a dozen times in my career. The first time my desktop memorably fried causing a plume of thick acrid smoke to fill the room. It completely obliterated a network television script. 

But I’ve learned a few tricks over the years which enabled me to return from the brink of the abyss every time. I hope they might help you should you face similar challenges.

One step at a time

The first step to recovering your lost efforts is to begin again immediately. 

There is a temptation to take a break, to walk away, regroup, sleep on it, whatever. Resist it. I’ve tried that and it never worked. Especially when I had a deadline looming. For me, the best results always followed an immediate and unrelenting recovery effort.

It’s as if the salient points are somehow stored in a frozen buffer in your mind. The shock has frozen them there even if you don’t realize it. The trick is in their extraction. 

Delay can also lead to paralysis. You don’t want the extent of your loss to really sink in.

It helps if you have rough notes to prompt your memory. I usually rough-out my main points in longhand while at a favourite cafe or public library. These notes not only help shift the chaos into a coherent order but also give me a restarting place in the event of any calamitous event.

I find it is essential to keep the momentum going, to keep the words flowing. It’s as if I need to get my mind right back to where it was when I was last working pre-disaster. I actually use the panic and anger to get me pumped up and to get back there so I can access all the thoughts I was processing when I was working on the first version.

It is vital to get as much down as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling and punctuation. What you need to do is recreate the skeleton of your work in as much detail as possible. It is remarkable how much will return if you focus and keep the panic at bay.


There will, of course, be holes in your memory. Don’t let them throw you off. Leave spaces where you think there was something you have temporarily forgotten. Not all forgotten memories will need to be recalled but you will need a place holder for now so you can see the shape of your piece reemerge.

I always try to get a first pass completed before I take a break or reward myself with caffeine. It doesn’t matter how incomplete it is. What is important is that you have an outline of your lost work, with key phrases and paragraph headings in some kind of linear order.

Soon your lost treasure will begin to take shape again. There will still be gaps but these gaps can work to your advantage. Some points were just not that relevant or strong. It is as if your subconscious edits them out without referral to your conscious. I have always discovered any work I have had to rewrite in this way was shorter, more pithy and consequently stronger than its original incarnation.

Depending upon the size and complexity of your lost work, once you have fully committed to its recovery, you should be able to recreate its essential elements and shape in a surprisingly short period of time relative to how long it originally took to achieve.


If you have time to sleep on it and return to it the next day, you can now do so. The breathing space will enable you to see it more clearly and how best to clean it up.

If your deadline looms menacingly and sleep is not a permitted luxury, take a short caffeine break and/or walk around the block and then begin cleaning up language, grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc. As you clean it up and fill it out, you will remember additional key phrases from your first version which you can now deftly insert into the appropriate paragraphs or speeches. 

The hours will fly by so keep at it.

With a bit of luck and a lot of single-minded determination, your work will be ready once more to submit on deadline with no one else the wiser.

To recap

Loss of data can occur to the most vigilant backer-upper. Constant backing up of your work and/or the use of an automatic back up app should always be your first line of defense.

* If you experience complete or almost complete loss of your data it is important not to panic. It is also essential not to freeze up in horror or anger or self-pity. (Lots of time to process all those emotions later after your deadline).

* Start the reconstruction process immediately. The sooner you start, the sooner you will finish!

* Focus on the job at hand and not on the loss. You can play the blame game if you need to afterwards.

* Work on the general shape at first, recalling key phrases, ideas and points. You will clean it up and fill it out last.

* Leave room for half-forgotten content to be added when remembered. Don’t worry about what you have truly forgotten – it is probably best left out anyway. Let your subconscious do its job.

The takeaway

Nobody wants to experience deadline disaster.

The bad news? If you work long enough it will happen. Depending upon your luck and technological savvy, it may even happen more than once.

The good news? You can recover. You can still make your deadline. And you will survive to do it all again another day.

The real secret is in knowing just that.

Do you have any tricks or tips that helped you salvage a seemingly lost work? Let us know in the comments section below.

Posted on July 20, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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  1. Written by Don Genova
    on July 20, 2016 at 10:36 am
    Reply · Permalink

    This is great advice for dealing with something that is primarily a piece of writing. When it comes to editing audio and video projects, I would never delete my source material (whether it is on a card, usb, or tape of some sort) until the project is finished and I can see no earthly purpose to keep it around any more. Then again, even those storage media are cheap these days. A drawer full of SD cards could probably hold years and years of gathered material, so why get rid of it? And you never know when you might be able to re-purpose it 😉

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