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How to recover Office documents: tips for getting lost or deleted files back

Nov 7, 2013

Maybe not. All might not be lost: there are several things you do and several places to look for temporary files, backups and old versions of your files. Quick tip : If you’ve accidentally deleted something in a document that is still open, press Ctrl-Z to Undo the mistake. This works in most situations, including in web browsers, so if you’ve lost an entire email that you just typed or a forum post, try the Ctrl-Z trick.

Largely, it depends on how your computer (and Office in particular) is configured, which version of Office you’re running and how the file was lost, deleted or corrupted.

There are no guarantees, but try the following and you could be saved starting again from scratch.

Recover Office documents: Look for the auto-recover or backup version.

By default, Office saves a copy of your file from time to time in case of a power cut or other failure. In theory, when you next launch Word, Excel or other Office program, it should present a list of files you can continue to work on, but sometimes you’ll see nothing at all.

This is where you can put in some detective work. You can use Windows Search (or the Start menu search box in Windows Vista or 7) to search for the filename (assuming you saved it at least once), or use wildcards.

You need only remember one word from the filename, or if not, search for all Word documents. Type *.doc or type *.docx to find all Word files. If you know you use a different file type, such as RTF, then search for *.rtf instead. (Excel files are .xls or .xlsx, while PowerPoint documents have .ppt or .pptx extensions.)

If that fails, try searching instead for Word backup files using the *.wbk or *.asd wildcards. If that turns nothing up, try *.tmp or ~*.*. You can find more detailed information on Microsoft’s troubleshooting page.

If you’re running Office 2010 or later, click the File tab, then Open, then Recent and you’ll see a link at the bottom called Recover Unsaved Documents. This takes you to the folder in which Office automatically saves your work.

Recover Office documents: Undelete them

It’s easy to inadvertently delete a document, but the chances of undoing that erroneous action are fairly high, especially if you act quickly.

First, look in the Windows Recycle Bin (there should be a shortcut on the Desktop). Your document is likely to be in this temporary folder unless you’re in the habit of pressing Shift-Delete, in which case it bypasses the Recycle Bin.

When there’s no sign of your file, try an undelete utility. There are many free options, but a popular one is Recuva, which comes in both installable and ‘portable’ versions. This is important as you don’t want to download or install a utility on the hard drive your deleted file resides on – otherwise you might overwrite it.

Instead, install the portable version of Recuva onto a handy USB flash drive (using a different computer if necessary) and then run it on the computer where your file has been deleted. As long as it hasn’t been overwritten you should be able to recover the document, although it may be missing its file name.

Recover Office documents:

Find a copy of the document There might be a copy of your file, but this really is clutching at straws. Unless you (or someone) ticked the option, Office doesn’t automatically create copies of your documents. But if that option is enabled, there should be a second version of your file called ‘Backup of xxxx’ where xxxx is the original filename.

For future reference, and not that you really want to hear it now, but to force Office to make copies you need to go into the options, find the Save section and look for an Always create a backup copy checkbox. Not all versions of office have this, but you will find options there to save AutoRecover data – set the time between auto-saves to a few minutes, and that way you’ll only ever lose a small amount of work.

Another glimmer of hope of finding your file comes in the form of Windows Shadow Copy. This is part of Windows 7 and 8, but also the Business and Ultimate versions of Vista.

To see if there’s an older version of your file, launch Windows Explorer and right-click on the file that contained your document. Click Properties and then look for a Previous Versions tab. If there is one, click on it and you should see a list of dates. Double-click on a date you think the file should have existed and look for the file.