how to name files

This isn’t exactly technology related, but I felt like it was worth getting out.

There are some basic communication tasks that I continually surprised that business professionals struggle with. The most notable problematic areas I have observed are:

  • naming files
  • writing email subject lines
  • choosing a communication medium
  • leaving voicemails

I can’t tell where the issue lies and how to correct it. Perhaps people aren’t taught communication enough in school. Perhaps communication isn’t stressed enough as something you have to learn. Perhaps people are just lazy.

I have a feeling that part of the problem is that not enough people correct someone when they aren’t being clear about something. I used to just ignore bad behavior, but in recent years I have become increasingly more likely to suggest improvements to people. I find that my clients and business associates who are the worst offenders tend to get worse as time goes on unless I speak up.

Now, before I start, I should note that these suggestions are partially just my personal preferences. There is no hard rule to good communication, but here are some ideas that work for me.

How to name Files:

Reserved Words

I cringe every time someone sends me a file with a name like “site_layout_final.zip”. This would be fine except that in business there is never such a thing as “final”. When you get a file like this, you know that the next day you are going to get another file named “site_layout_final_FINAL.zip”, and thus begins the fun.

My list of words that should never appear in a file name:

  • new
  • temp
  • final
  • draft
  • master
  • complete
  • last
  • test

There are probably others I am forgetting. If you ever put one of these in a file name, write this list down on a sticky note on your computer and slap yourself every time you try to use one. Getting these out of your file naming vocabulary will make the world a better place.

Folder Content Sorting

Prefixing
Often times when people are sending a lot of files, they will attempt to name them things in order to force operating system sorting. File names like “_configuration.xml”, or “!configuration.xml”.

I don’t think I need to explain too much why this is a bad idea other than to say it assumes an importance of some files over others and assumes that the prefixed files are the most important. This thinking all too often leads to a prefix battle where newer versions become “!!configuration.xml” and “!!!configuration.xml”.

Prefixing files does not add in any way to the description of what is contained in the file, which should always be a goal.

If you do need a grouping of files to sort, you should think about these alternatives:

Are the files part of a set? If so a folder for each set plus a numeric prefix may be appropriate. Just remember to pad numeric file names with 0 to make sure they sort appropriately.

An example of this set naming might be:

  • bracelet 01.jpg
  • bracelet 02.jpg
  • bracelet 03.jpg

or even

  • 01 bracelet.jpg
  • 02 earring.jpg
  • 03 necklace.jpg

What about Dates?
Any file that is relevant to only a single date, or a date span can often be named with the appropriate date in the file name. This makes the file clear from the name what it includes, but also helps greatly with sorting.

You will thank yourself later if you come up with a way of writing dates that is consistent and logical.

Naming one file revenue_01_08.xls and another file revenue_2_2008.xls is all well and good, but your operating system isn’t going to group them together when you have a folder that has hundreds of these files.

I like to use the format: subject_#yyyy##mm##dd#.ext, with the day optional.

The above files would then become revenue_200801.xls and revenue_200802.xls.

The biggest issue with getting other people to go along with this format seems to be putting the date in the front. For some reason, Americans can’t grasp the concept that this really is the best way to write dates. Naming files with #mm##dd##yyyy# is okay, except that once you have several years worth of files together in a folder, they are all grouped by month, and not sorted in order.

As a general rule, it is usually good practice to make everything in the file name read from Generic to Specific. Again, this seems tough for many people to grasp but it is not all that wacky a concept. This is after all, we often name things with people’s last name before their first name.

The file name revenue_quarterly.xls is generally a better name than quarterly_revenue.xls because revenue is the more generic term. When you add revenue_yearly.xls, it will fit right in and all your revenue files will be grouped.

The File Name Itself

Choosing a file name is a lot like choosing an email subject. It is easy to just bang on the keyboard to name a file, but you should really be aware that your file is going to live on a computer system with thousands of other files. The name should help you or someone else find the file if they are doing a system search and not have to open up 20 files and read to find the correct one.

  1. Make sure the name says something about the content.
    The goal is to make the name generic, but not too generic. revenue_affiliate_quarterly_2007_4.xls is a lot better a name than revenue_2007_4.xls. People all too often use a simple throw away name rather than actually putting in thought as to what the file includes.
  2. Avoid using information about the reader in the name.
    At least once a week I get someone emailing me a file named something like “for_terrence.doc”. Don’t do this, period.
    This shouldn’t be confused with a document that is about a user. resume_curran_terrence.doc is a perfectly fine filename because the contents of the file are about Terrence Curran.
  3. Don’t be afraid have a long file name
    It has been a long time since we had DOS 8 character restrictions on file names. It is perfectly okay to have filenames that are 10, 20, 50, 100 characters. You should try to make the name short and concise, but there is very little reason to abbreviate or leave out information.

Hopefully this post is useful to someone out there. I will probably add to it in the future as I think of more things, just for my own reference.