File naming conventions when you have tons of revisions

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In a world where everything is final, nothing is final. Tweet this image.

Doc, do you have a method for file naming that makes it easier to track document revisions? Every time someone tells me s/he has a great system, it turns out to be including the date in the file name or creating a new folder, which doesn’t help with multiple versions per day. On occasion, I will go back-and-forth with a client and create a half-dozen iterations in a day and need to keep components from each. Any suggestions?—Gilberte

Some clients just seem to enjoy the revision process more than others, eh? My personal system is to keep things simple. Every time I create a new document, I append the version number, so clientx-project_name_v1.docx, clientx-project_name_v2.docx and so on. I think the highest I ever got was in the lower 30s. Fun times.

When creating a file-naming system, I think of having three primary goals:

  • Sufficiently descriptive: Is it clear to me what’s in the file? Would it be clear to someone else? Will it make sense if I have to find it in a few years?
  • As brief as possible: Depending on the view in your finder, a name that’s too long will get truncated, which defeats the purpose. In your case, Gilberte, you could add tags, keywords or colors to your file properties—and improve searchability—without lengthening the name itself.
  • Consistent: Once you’ve picked a method that works, stick with it. That makes it much easier when you search and sort.

I know that there are people who insist the date should be in there, but I personally don’t find it a must-use. I add dates when it makes sense for a given project, and I often create subfolders within individual client folders to indicate what month something occurs in, because it makes invoicing easier.

Other File Naming Conventions

  • In cases where I’m proposing two versions of something for a client to choose from, I’ll do clientx-whitepaper_topic_v4a.docx, clientx-whitepaper_topic_v4b.docx, etc. Assuming they picked “a”, the next version would be clientx-whitepaper_v5.docx.
  • When I give an author two versions of something, one with tracked changes and the other with all accepted, it would be: booktitle_v5-tracked.docx or booktitle_v5-clean.docx.
  • When I’m revising something sent to me, it’ll run like clientx-whitepaper_v5-JP-revised.docx, which would turn into v6.docx upon approval. I ask clients giving me revisions to use the same system, adding their initials to the file name. If they don’t do it right, I fix the name before I save it to the project folder.
  • The one thing that was always a challenge in my mag days was the art department’s desire to append “final”: coverstory_vFinal.doc. (Which, of course, inevitably turned into coverstory_vFinal-final-final.doc because nothing is ever finished.) For that reason, I NEVER use final in a filename, although I will name a folder “final” to reduce clutter—but only for holding the truly final versions that went to press, emailed out, or uploaded to a website. Using the word “new” can cause similar issues.
  • All of the above, of course, is applicable to your own organizational system. That goes out the window when it comes to clients; you should adhere to their file-naming conventions wherever possible.
  • For additional helpful (sometimes contradictory) hints on file naming, check out the posts here, here, and here.

I’ll close with a story about the power inherent in file naming. I was working at a magazine that was financially on the brink, so it was time to shop myself around. However, it was widely suspected that the weaselly IT guy was snooping around on our computers at night, and I didn’t want him to know I was planning my departure.

I created a file with the name “resume.doc” and left it smack dab on my desktop—but the only contents were something along the lines of “Hey there, IT Guy! You don’t think I’m so stupid to actually name my resume that, do you? You’re going to need to search harder.”

I knew I’d busted him when I passed him in the hall the next day, and he averted his eyes and sped up to a near-run to get past me!

In the comments: Any tips for naming files in a way that makes multiple versioning and revisions easier?

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  1. says

    We use “Concept 1, 2, 3” etc. during the design stages and store these versions in a folder named Concepts. Once a concept is approved, future versions are named “Proof 1, 2, 3” etc. The previous versions are then moved to a folder called “Earlier Versions” so they are less likely to be accidentally used. We number concepts and proofs with numbers only and don’t use -a, -b, and -c extensions.

  2. says

    I put v1, v2, etc. at the end of file names. When I think a version is truly final, I put FINAL at the end.

    I’m going to date myself here, but I remember the nightmare of naming files back in the olden days when Microsoft only allowed eight characters.

  3. says

    I keep it ultra-simple: I date everything. In cases where edits are multiple per day, I number them along with the date — for example, RoundtableGuide 5-24-16 1.docx then becomes RoundtableGuide 5-24-16 2.docx, etc.

    If the client has their own convention, I try to follow that.