9 ways to recover a corrupt Microsoft Office file

30th Aug 2010 | 11:00

9 ways to recover a corrupt Microsoft Office file

Try our free and easy Office file fixing tips

Open corrupt Office files: 1-5

It's a nightmare, the frightening scenario that scares every Microsoft Office owner: one of your most important Word, Excel or PowerPoint files has somehow been corrupted. And now it either won't open at all, or you're able to view some of the content - but the rest seems to have disappeared.

The sight of hours, days, maybe weeks of work apparently gone forever is enough to ruin anyone's day, but don't give up just yet. The situation may not be quite as bad as it seems.

Office itself can fix some broken files; there are free plenty of tools around that can achieve even better results; and even if they fail, applying a few simple, straightforward manual tricks could be enough to recover your lost work, and in just a few minutes.

Make a copy of the faulty document before you do anything else: our techniques aren't destructive, but it's best to be safe. And then you're ready to begin. Here's what you need to know.

1. Volume Shadow Copy

If you're using Windows 7, or the Business, Enterprise or Ultimate edition of Windows Vista then the built-in shadow copy centre may have an older and uncorrupted version of your file.

To find out, launch Explorer, right-click the folder that contained the document and select Properties. If you see a Previous Versions tab then click that. And if all is well then you'll see a list of entries for the folder, going back days, or maybe weeks.

Shadow copy

SHADOW:Windows may have made a backup copy of your document. How thoughtful

Double-click one with a date when you know the document was readable, and try opening this older version. If it works, save it with a new name, then repeat the process with later folder entries until you reach the point where the file became corrupted.

This will get you a baseline version of the file, but you may still have lost plenty of work: if so, don't stop here. Keep trying the following steps and you may be able to recover the latest copy of the file, too.

2. Undelete

Depending on your Office setup and the history of this document, you may have backup, autorecover or other temporary copies of the file. If this is a Word document, for instance, try searching for *.WBK or *.ASD files of the right size and date, opening likely matches in Word to see what turns up (more on that topic at the Microsoft site).

In addition, Office apps will generally create a hidden temporary file with a copy of your document, as you work on it, so locating this file can be useful. The copy is deleted when you close your Office application, though, so you'll need an undelete tool. Grab a copy of Recuva (www.piriform.com/recuva) if you don't have one already.

Recuva

RECUVA: Undelete tools like Recuva may help you find old Office temporary files

Now ask the program to search the folder where your document is stored for all files (or *.TMP files if you can filter by extension).

If a deleted file of around the right date and size is available, then recover it, ideally to a different drive (a USB flash drive will be fine). Rename the TMP extension to match the real document format, then try opening it to see what you've recovered.

3. Test your assumptions

If Office tells you that a file is corrupt and can't be opened then you'll probably believe it - but there could be other explanations. Your Office app may be having some fundamental problems of its own, for instance.

So if you have a problem opening one document, then confirm the results by opening others, or creating a new document, saving and reopening that.

If the application works fine with other files then you've shown that the original document is most likely at fault.

Reinstall

REINSTALL: If the problem is with Office itself then a repair installation may fix the problem

But if there are problems elsewhere, as well, then perhaps the issue is with Office. You might try repairing the current installation (in Windows 7, go to Control Panel, Uninstall a Program, choose Office, click Change and select the Repair option), or reinstalling the entire package. Now try opening the document again, and you may well have better luck.

4. Open and Repair

Office can fix some corrupt documents on its own. And this will often happen automatically. You'll notice a longer pause than usual while Office is working on the file, then your document will either open as normal, or you'll see an error message describing the problem.

If Office doesn't try this itself, though, you can manually ask that it fix a specific document. Just go to open a file as normal, choose the document in question, then click the arrow to the right of the Open button and select Open and Repair.

If the corruption is relatively minor then this may be enough to restore your work. But don't expect too much: the Open and Repair option doesn't seem particularly smart, and in our tests, damaging just a byte or two in keys areas of a document would prevent it from opening at all.

Repair

REPAIR: Office's own Open and Repair function is enough to repair some documents

Should you still be having problems, there's a second, very much bare-bones Word option.

Go to open a file again, choose your damaged document, and select "Recover Text from Any File" in the "Files of Type" box. This should be able to recover any raw text from the file, but images and raw formatting will be lost .

Save this version anyway - it may be the best you'll get - but there are techniques that may be able to achieve more complete results.

5. Replace your template

While we've ruled out major Office-wide problems as the cause of your document difficulties, there could be more minor issues. Word could be affected by a faulty template, maybe; a dubious addon; possibly even a printer issue.

Template

TEMPLATE: A change of template could make a Word document viewable again

You could address each of these points individually. Or you might opt to tackle several of them in one go, for example running Word in Safe Mode (a bare-bones launch that disables all installed add-ons, amongst other things). Read Microsoft's official guide to troubleshooting damaged documents in Word 2007 and 2010 to help you decide.

Open corrupt Office files: 6-9

6. Office Visualisation Tool

Microsoft's Office Visualisation Tool (OffVis for short) is a highly technical utility which allows security researchers to take a close look at the structure of DOC, XLS or PPT files.

It also includes a useful Repair option, though, so if your document is saved in the older binary formats (not the later DOCX, XLSX or PPTX) then Offvis may allow you to recover at least something from the file.

Office visualisation tool

VISUALISE: If looks horribly technical, but actually Microsoft Offvis includes a very quick and easy Office file repair feature

The program is extremely easy to use.

Just click File > Open, and choose your broken document. You'll see its raw contents displayed in the left hand side.

Click Tools > Repair and Defragment. There's no dialog box, no progress bar, no sign that anything has happened at all, but OffVis is busy working in the background.

Then click File > Save Data File As (not "Save Data File" as you don't want to overwrite the original file), save the document with a new name, and try opening it. While the results aren't perfect (and in theory they be worse than the original document), we found OffVis was able to recover files where Open and Repair failed miserably, so it's definitely worth a try.

7. Alternative applications

Opening Office documents is a complicated business. And in software development terms, there are many possible ways to get the job done.

So just because, say, Word displays an error message when you open a particular file, doesn't mean other apps that can read that format will behave in the same way. They may be able to cope with whatever the problem is, and give you access to at least some of your work.

Windows WordPad can open .DOC files in Vista and XP, for instance. In Windows 7 it only appears to support the .DOCX format (and then only partially), but choose a .DOC file anyway and you may at least be able to view any text it contains.

WordPad

WORDPAD:WordPad can open .DOC and some .DOCX files

For wider and more reliable opening of Office files (all formats) you could try installing a copy of OpenOffice. Many people report that this provides reliable access to damaged files.

And any other programs that can read your document format might be useful. AbiWord is a powerful little editor that can read DOC and DOCX files, for instance - let it try importing your broken document and see what happens.

8. Recovery tools

As you might expect, there are a whole host of programs designed to bring back corrupt Office files from the dead. Most of the best are commercial, some very expensive, but there are also plenty of freebies and good value deals available.

It may not have been updated in a long time, for example, but Repair My Word can still repair many damaged .DOC files.

S2 Services has free tools to recover the text from DOCX, XLSX and many other file types, as well as general recovery advice.

S2

FREE TOOLS: S2 Services provide free tools to recover content from DOCX and XLSX files

And Cimaware's commercial range of products (there are separate tools for Access, Excel, Word and Outlook) was very effective in our tests, and supports just about every Office version and file type. Prices start at £69 for WordFix, and that's a special offer, but there is a free trial version that will display a partial preview of the recovered file, so you're able to check the program's abilities before you buy.

9. DIY

If nothing else can recover your DOCX, PPTX or XLSX document, then you can always take a closer look for yourself.

These formats are actually ZIP files, so a good place to start is to rename a copy of the document to have a ZIP extension, then use your archiving tool to extract its contents.

If this doesn't work then you may have discovered the core problem: your document is so damaged that it's not recognisable as ZIP file any more. Try specialist repair tools like Object Fix Zip or DiskInternals ZIP Repair to see if they can help, and anything they can do may allow Office to properly open the file.

DOCX

ZIP: DOCX documents are actually ZIP files, and may be viewable in archiving tools like 7-Zip

If you can at least unzip the file, though, then you'll unpack XML files that describe the document. In the case of a Word .DOCX file, for instance, browsing to the Word folder will display a Document.xml file which should contain the raw document text, as well as other files covering headers, footers, footnotes, endnotes and more.

Double-clicking these won't give you the full formatting, of course, but at least you'll have the core body text, with images in the Media folder. And if nothing else has managed to recover even that much then then this is still very good news, enough to save you a great deal of time and hassle.

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