Losing hard work to a technical malfunction is painful. Permanently misplacing the fruits of your labour among years (or decades) of backups is excruciating. The easiest way to ensure that both you and your team can always locate work is a consistent system of informative filenames made up of three essential elements:

  • Author’s name
  • Title of the document
  • Date of the current revision.

Author’s Name

It may seem silly to include your own name in a file saved on your own device, but this helps present and future collaborators distinguish your contribution from other people’s drafts and versions of the same file. When you circulate work, you want to get credit for it. The best way to lay claim to work is to put your name on it — both inside and out.

For example, I once allowed a class of twenty-eight undergraduates to submit an essay over Thanksgiving break. No fewer than five emails arrived with the exact same attachment: “PaperforHeather.docx.” It may have been simple after DLing each file to rename it and include the student’s last name or ID number, but I resented the extra time and effort accrued because I had offered an extension. Had I been less committed to consistent filenaming, one of the papers might easily have gotten lost and marked late.


Choosing a title can be tricky. Indeed, I put off titling both my MA and PhD dissertations as long as possible. Nevertheless, it is important that the content and purpose of a file be clear even from a listed directory if, quod abest, a full restore is necessary because you, like me, spill red wine on your laptop every few years.

Some good titles: CompEssayforHIST323, LitReviewECigarettes, AdmissionsEbook, etc.

Some bad titles: Paper1, Assignment1, Draft, etc.

Date of Current Revision

I first started including the date of the current revision in filenames after reading Peg Boyle Single’s Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text in a dissertation writing workshop led by the talented and kind Dr. Julie Reiser. Single suggests a Year-Month-Day approach that I appreciate because it magically transforms alphabetical ordering of a folder into a chronological list for a given file. Nice!

The absolute necessity of dates in filenames, however, I only learnt once I started working as a freelancer. In 2016, I was hired to help an academic in her sixties rework interview and field notes from her doctoral work in the early 1980s into a peer-reviewed article. The original notebooks were long gone, but thousands of individual WordStar files remained and had been copied (but not converted to WordPerfect or MSWord) from one backup to another for the past three decades.

Years of data were as good as lost to my very frazzled client because she had named the files after the interviewees. Although the material inside included the dates of each interview, how were we to identify which files we needed out of a pool of thousands? The client was horrified to discover that each file’s “date created” information was the same — the most recent recovery. She could have arranged to sit for weeks going through the files one-by-one after converting them to more recent software, sorting, and renaming. Instead, she elected to call Microsoft and complain.

And I laughed.