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Protecting yourself from Microsoft Word—with a few relevant notes for other programs


by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Protecting yourself from Microsoft Word... with a few relevant notes for other programs. Words: A Quarterly Bulletin for Technical Writers & Communicators 2(1):1–4. Published by Abelard Consulting (www.abelard.com.au)

If you've used Microsoft Word for any length of time, you know that crashes and loss of work are a fact of life. Word has become much better over time, but it remains unstable and annoying to work with, particularly for the Macintosh versions. But despite its many flaws, there are ways to protect yourself, and they fall into two main categories:

In this brief article, I'll explain some of the things you need to know to protect yourself. Although my focus is on Word 2003 and previous versions, many of the tips in this article work equally well for other word processors (mutatis mutandis) and other versions of Word, with appropriate modifications.

Before continuing, you need to know where to go to change certain key settings in Word:

Perform preventative maintenance

Preventative maintenance involves taking measures to prevent problems from occurring in the first place. The importance of these steps varies among versions of Word, with the steps being most necessary for older versions.

The first group of strategies involves simple housekeeping. Like most software, Word creates temporary files that it uses behind the scenes while you work. Unlike most software, Word did a generally poor job of cleaning up after itself until fairly recently in its history, making the "temporary" part of the name a notorious oxymoron. The two most problematic types of temporary file are "work files" and "autorecover files". Work files, which have names that end in .tmp or that include the words "Word work" in the file name, used to accumulate in older versions of Word; the files never got deleted on some computers, and when Word could no longer deal with all these files, it would gradually become unstable, leading to crashes and information loss. Autorecover files are files that Word creates to let you recover as much work as possible in the event of a crash. When Word shuts down normally, rather than crashing, it erases the Autorecover files as part of its shutdown routine. But when Word crashes, these files are left behind. Autorecover files are less problematic than the temporary work files, but can still cause problems if they accumulate.

The solution to instability related to the accumulation of undeleted temporary files is to learn where these files are stored, and check whether they are accumulating in sufficient quantities to pose a problem. In more recent versions of Word, the work files appear in the same directory as the document you're working on. The autorecover files appear in a specific directory, and you can learn its location (or change that location) by opening the Options (Windows) or Preferences (Macintosh) dialog box. Select the File Locations tab, click the option for Autorecover Files, and click the Modify button. You can now use the standard Windows or Macintosh dialog box navigation tools to learn the path to the current directory, or choose a new path and create a directory with a memorable name such as "My Documents/Word autorecover files" that will make it easy to find these files in future.

To find orphaned work files that aren't in your current working directory, close Word, then search your hard disk using the operating system's search tool (under the Windows menu, or by pressing Command+F in any Finder window on the Macintosh). To find the work files, search for files with "Word work" in the file name, files whose name begins with the "~" character, or files whose names end in .tmp. Depending on which operating system and which version of Word you're using, you may also need to set the options for the search function to find "invisible" files. For the autorecover files, search for files that contain the words "autorecovery save of" in the name. Unless Word has recently crashed and you need to recover data from any of these files, simply delete them. Add a reminder to your calendar program to search for these files at least monthly until you learn whether they're accumulating on your system; if not, you can delete this reminder, but if they are accumulating, finding and deleting them should become part of your monthly maintenance routine.

The second group of strategies involves avoiding problematic features that have never worked reliably for most users. (Note that although these features work just fine for some users, at least for short periods, they tend to fail unpredictably for reasons nobody seems able to explain. In my books, that makes them unreliable.) These include the Fast Save function, which you can disable in the Save tab of the Options or Preferences dialog box. Similarly, avoid using the Versions feature under the File menu, since it seems to have been implemented using the same programming code as Fast Save. The Master Documents feature should also be avoided, since it has been a frequent cause of corrupted files ever since it was introduced, and I have no evidence this feature has been fixed as of Word 2007. Finally, never embed a table in a cell of another table; such nested tables rapidly become unstable, and can lead to crashes and lost data. If you need to divide a cell of a table into sub-cells, it's safer to open the Table menu and select "Split Cells..." Specify the number of rows and columns for the cell, click OK, and continue working.

The third group of strategies relates to incompatibilities between versions of Word. Wherever possible, you should avoid repeatedly transferring files between versions of Word, and between versions of Word on different operating systems (for example, Macintosh versus Windows versions, North American versus Asian versions). Such transfers generally work well at first, with only minor incompatibilities, but any transfer that requires repeated conversion of a document into a slightly different version of the .doc (Word 2003 and earlier) or .docx (Word 2007) file format increases your risks. I maintain four versions of Word on my computer (Word X and 2008 for Macintosh, and Word 2003 and 2007 for Windows) to minimize this problem, but I'm an extreme case because I transfer files between many versions of Word on many operating systems. For most people, standardizing on a single version of Word is the easiest solution.

Develop recovery strategies

Word offers two built-in protections. These can be set in the Save tab of the Options or Preferences dialog box. The Save Autorecover Information feature lets you define the interval between times when Word will save an autorecover file; if Word crashes, this file lets you recover some of the information that you typed since the last time you saved the file manually. On most computers and with most versions of Word, setting the interval to 10 minutes is sufficient if you're paranoid, and setting the interval to 30 minutes will be fine for most users. With these settings, Word will save autorecovery information every 10 or 30 minutes, respectively; if it crashes, you'll only lose the information you typed since the last save of this file (i.e., a maximum of 10 or 30 minutes, respectively, of typing). If your copy of Word is particularly crash-prone, train yourself to manually save the file (Control+S in Windows and Command+S on the Mac) fairly frequently. Choosing to create the autorecovery files frequently seems like a logical step, but if the interval is too short and you work too long on the file, older versions of Word may run into problems with having to juggle too many files simultaneously and may crash.

The second option in the Save tab is "Always Create Backup Copy". Using this feature, Word creates a file named "Backup copy of [the name of your file]" each time you open a file. Should Word crash, or should you spend an hour working on the file and decide you preferred the original, you can simply close the open file and start working again from the backup copy. Although this is a useful feature, I've found that it's wiser to create your own backup copies. To do so, open a folder on your desktop that contains the document you're working on, and periodically make a copy (right-click the file and select "Make a copy" in Windows; select the file and press Command+D to "duplicate" the file on the Macintosh). Then copy it to a flash drive or e-mail yourself a copy. This can be tedious if you work on a file for long periods of time, but it places full control of backing up the files in your hands instead of relying on Word.

When Word files become corrupt, it may become impossible to open them, or you may be able to open the file, but find that it crashes Word. If a file is not this badly damaged, but shows signs of growing corruption, such as unusually long times to open or save the file, frequent crashes, or incorrect behavior when you modify or update styles, consider trying this trick first introduced by Woody Leonard in his classic book Word 97 Annoyances: move the cursor to the end of the file, before the final paragraph marker, then press Control+Shift+Home (Windows) or Command+Shift+Home (Macintosh) to select all of the document except that marker. (If you can't see that marker, open the Options or Preferences dialog and select the checkbox for "Paragraph marks" in the View tab.) Copy the selected text, open a new document, and paste the copied text into that new document. This trick became so useful to editors that in the copyediting-l discussion group, it became known as "maggying" a file (after Maggie Secara, who popularised the technique).

When this doesn't work, you can try inserting the file into a new document. To do so, create a new document, then open the Insert menu and select File. Select the problem file, and when Word has finished inserting it, save the file under a new name.

When file corruption grows too much for these tricks to work, a new feature introduced in Word 2003 for Windows (but not, so far as I can tell, in Word 2008 for the Macintosh) can help. Close the problem file and make a duplicate copy, as described above, in case you need to return to that copy. Next, open the File menu and select Open. In the Open or Open File dialog box, select the problem file, but do not automatically click OK. Instead, look for a small dropdown menu beside this button (it usually looks like a downward-pointing arrow) and open that menu instead. From that menu, select the option "Open and Repair". This new feature will fix many of the most common problems that occur in Word documents. If you can successfully open and repair the file in this manner, save a copy under a new name and work with that copy henceforth. If this fails, you can sometimes open a file in other software such as OpenOffice Writer or Adobe InDesign; both have occasionally saved my ASCII.

Trust, but not too far

I don't want to make you paranoid with this article. Word is generally a robust, stable word processor, and I spend eight or more hours working safely with it on a typical work day. That's particularly true since I switched to Word 2003, and Word 2007 is said to be even more stable. If you don't push Word quite as hard as I do, you won't often encounter grave problems. But if you do push it hard, or if you do encounter problems, the tips in this article should reduce the frequency of problems and help you recover all or most of your work should a problem arise.

Whether or not Word is giving you problems, be sure to make frequent backups, and store them somewhere safe. It's been said that there are only two types of computer users: those who have lost hours of their work, and those who soon will. My experience mentoring other writers and editors tells me this is truer than most people are willing to believe until they find themselves in the first category.


To learn more about using Word efficiently and protecting yourself from its many idiosyncracies, see my book Effective Onscreen Editing.


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