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Everyone is going to have preferences for how they save, organize, and find files for their personal use. And that’s a good thing. Having any method, even if it’s idiosyncratic, is going to help you more efficiently interact with files. For this post, focused just on the simple task of naming files, I gathered up some tips of my own and called on colleagues to see what techniques they used in their day-to-day file management. I’ve divided them into 3 different ways we use files to get at my first general tip: Think about how you (or others) are going to use the file to inform the way you name it.

Naming Files for Storage (Short-term and Long-term)

Use the same convention for naming files of the same type. An easy shortcut is to use a saved file that already exists. Click on it in any “Save” dialog box, to copy an older filename to a new file. Using that as a template, you can change the relevant parts for the new file.

Include the purpose in the file name for derivatives of a main file.

PublishingNumbers_raw.csv →
PublishingNumbers_forcampus.ppt
PublishingNumbers_forparents.ppt

Use dates in the file name. Besides giving you an easy way to see the date of the files, a reason for using a date is to enable a better sort. You could do an 8-digit date or a 6-digit date, but I don’t advise a variable digit date. Either 02102015 or 021015, but not 21515. This is because computers will sort different length numbers differently when they’re the beginning of the file name. If you want things sorted by year rather than month, start with the year:

150210_BoardMeeting_MinutesAPPROVED.docx

Use capital letters without spaces to make filenames easier to read without creating as lengthy of a name. (See below another reason to avoid spaces.)

General Education Requirements.doc →
GeneralEducationRequirements.doc

 Create folders when you need them. There is always an option while saving a file to “Create New Folder”, so if you need to nest another folder, do it!

Naming Working Files

Use DRAFT or FINAL to indicate the status of a document without having to open it.

2014_ExternalReviewReport_DRAFT.gdoc
2014_ExternalReviewReport_FINAL.gdoc

Add initials to the end of the filename, when working in groups or on files with multiple editors.

2014_ExternalReviewReport_DRAFT_bd.gdoc

Add dates to help you or those sharing your docs, to quickly get an idea of the version history:

2014_ExternalReviewReport_DRAFT_rb021415.gdoc

Don’t abbreviate unless it’s a very standard abbreviation with little room for ambiguity. Technologically, we aren’t very limited in filename length like we once were, so you don’t need to feel guilty. But don’t create sentence-long filenames that are hard to view in a navigation window.

140405_CoRelPa.docx could be:
ColonialReligiousPartners?
CourseReleasePamela?
CollateralRelinquishPayment?

Hack the default sort by using letters or numbers to make things rise to the top so you aren’t searching for files you use frequently.

1MyFavoriteThing.xlsx
A_ProjectImportant.doc
B_ProjectLessImportant.doc

Naming Files for the Web

Use the underscore. While in some cases a hyphen is okay, and on your computer spaces are okay, in general you want to avoid all punctuation including spaces, and go for the magical underscore. Even though some web software will automatically convert filenames to be web friendly, how they do this differs and can still cause problems. The simplest thing is to name your files with underscores, avoiding both errors and weird, bloated filenames.

Avoid: “lastname name initial.html” → “lastname%&$name$%initial.html”
Instead: “brubacher_ryan_p.html” → “brubacher_ryan_p.html”

Be specific naming downloadable files. Use filenames that will help visitors 1) understand what a document is, and 2) find it in their downloads folder.

0483957388form.docx →
StudForm.docx →
StudentWorkerApp.docx →
StudentWorkerApplication_Form.docx

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Advanced Tech Tip:

If you want to get fancy you can use software like Hazel, Belvedere, or DropIt to set rules and behaviors that manipulate files automatically.