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File Name Best Practices

Windows can handle file names of up to 260 characters in length, including the path to the file. If a file is nested within many folders, and/or if the file has a long name, the character limit is most likely exceeded.

Windows has things known as system variables. These are variables that Windows relies upon to function, because Windows will always know what the variables mean and where they are, even when we’re moving bits and bytes all over the place. The system variable MAX_PATH is the one that restricts filenames and file paths to under 260 characters.

Being a variable, you’d think we could change it. No, we should not. It would be like pulling a thread out of a sweater. As soon as one system variable changes, other system variables and components dependent on them start to unravel.

What Makes a Good File Naming Convention?

You should be consistent and descriptive in naming and organizing files so that it is obvious where to find specific data and what the files contain.

 It's a good idea to set up a clear directory structure that includes information like the project title, a date, and some type of unique identifier. Individual directories may be set up by date, researcher, experimental run, or what makes sense for you and your research.   

Consider the following… 

  • index.doc

  • final.pdf

  • family.jpg


  • 20200528-ThesisTOCV001-DOC.doc

  • 20190519-S515FINALV001-PDF.pdf

  • 19780130-FAMILYVACATION-JPG.jpg

The second lets the user know quickly the date, subject, and file format making it easier to locate files quickly and easily. 

What Should I Include in a File Naming Convention?

Filenames should have a precise name that allows you to quickly identify what the file contains.

Some information may include:

  • Project name or acronym

  • Location/spatial coordinates

  • Researcher name/initials

  • Date or date range of project

  • Type of data

  • Conditions

  • Version number of file

  • Three-letter file extension for application-specific files

A good format for date designations is YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD. This format makes sure all of your files stay in chronological order.

What Should I Avoid in a File Naming Convention?

Do not make file names too long, since long file names do not work well with all types of software. Also, file names that are too long can easily be corrupted increasing the risk of losing your work.

Do not use special characters such as  ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) ` ; < > ? , [ ] { } ' " and |.Do not use spaces. Some software will not recognize file names with spaces, and file names with spaces must be enclosed in quotes. Recommended options include:

  • Underscores: file_name

  • Dashes: file-name

  • No separation: filename

  • Camel case: FileName

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