Microsoft Word crashes: Recovery options

July 20, 2012

Microsoft has definitely improved the stability of software like Word over the years. The days of complex Word documents crashing regularly are a thing of the past, in my experience. Since Word 2003, I’ve rarely had Word crash on me — and in the past few years I’ve worked on some pretty long and complex documents with lots of section breaks, complex tables, large figures, and track changes turned on. I’ve worked in Word 2003, Word 2007, and Word 2010, and I can’t recall the last time Word crashed on me. And if it did, there was an option to let Word try to recover as much of the document as possible.

So it was surprising that I heard of several work colleagues experiencing regular crashes in Word 2007. These were the same documents I’d worked on just days and sometimes hours before with no problem at all.

The main difference between how they worked and how I worked was that all those experiencing crashes were working directly on the documents within SharePoint, whereas I work via VPN and check out the document from SharePoint and get SharePoint to save it locally to my default SharePoint directory until such time as I’m ready to check it back in (effectively, SharePoint downloads the document to my local machine, and uploads it again when I’m finished with it — I don’t work on the document over the network, as my colleagues do). But before we could point the finger at SharePoint as being the issue causing the crashes, I suggested that we take a staged approach to identifying what was causing Word to crash.

Remember, these documents are complex:

  • they can be several hundred pages long
  • they can have up to 100 section breaks for portrait/landscape and A3 page orientations and sizes, and they have odd/even pages for each section
  • they can have many tables, some of which can be quite complex with merged cells, sideways text etc.
  • they can have many figures
  • track changes are turned on from one revision to the next
  • each document can have multiple authors or reviewers who add their track changes and comments
  • they can have hundreds of comments from reviewers
  • document automation (fields and bookmarks) populates the headers and footers and some of the front matter
  • appendices are common
  • outline numbering is used for all headings, including appendices
  • macros enable the automation of some regular tasks
  • they can have many styles that aren’t in the template — before I do my review of the document, authors may have introduced many styles from copy/pasting from other documents without realizing that they are adding to the list of styles
  • automated captions and cross-references abound
  • and so on…

Add to that, working over a network and/or within SharePoint.

Any of the things listed above might contribute to the instability of a document — there are lots of things that Word has to keep track of and lots of things that could potentially go wrong. When I look at some of these documents, I’m surprised that Word remains as stable as it does!

So if your Word documents are crashing regularly, you need to take steps to see if you can get the document stable again. Trying to figure out why it’s happening is probably impossible, so let’s look at my suggested hierarchy of things to try, starting with a gentle nudge and working up to a sledge hammer approach.

Before you start

Make a copy of the document! Only try the steps below on a copy of the document. If everything goes pear-shaped, at least you’ll have your original (though unstable) document to go back to.

Step 1: Save As

The first step is to save the document under a new file name (even just adding 02 to the file name, for example, saves it as a new document). Sometimes doing that will solve the problem that’s causing the crashes. It’s a quick and easy option to try. If it works and you don’t get any further crashes, then you can delete the old file and save or rename the new one with the original file name, if that file name is important to you.

‘Save as’ preserves everything, including all track changes, comments etc.

Step 2: Save As RTF

If you’re still getting crashes, try saving the document as a Rich Text Format (RTF) file — it’s one of the file type options available when you do a ‘Save As’. Then ‘Save as’ back again to a DOC/DOCX file, perhaps changing the file name in the process. Again, this is a quick and easy option to test.

‘Save as RTF’ seems to preserve everything too, though it may blow out your file size (the document I tested this on was 300 KB — it blew out to 13 MB as an RTF, but dropped back to 300 KB when I saved it back to DOCX).

Step 3: Get it off the network/SharePoint and work on it locally

Network latency issues, flaky connections, or issues with SharePoint (if you use it) can all contribute to a document crashing. To see if it’s the network and NOT the document or Word, save the document to your local drive and work on it locally. If you get no further crashes, then something on/in the network is likely the culprit. This will be very difficult for you to pinpoint, so report it to your IT department.

Again, this is a quick and easy option to test.

Don’t forget to upload your document back to the network storage location (or check it back into SharePoint) when you’ve finished with it. And let anyone else who might be wanting to work on the document know that you’re working on it locally and for them not to touch it until you’ve told them you’re finished with it and the new version is back where it belongs.

Step 4: Repair Office

Sometimes, Word is the culprit, not your document. If all or most of your documents are crashing regularly and you’ve tried the steps above without success, then you need to look at something being wrong with Word itself. If these same documents are not crashing for anyone else under the same circumstances, then your installation of Word is also likely the culprit.

You can repair Word from inside Word 2007 (Office button > Word Options > Resources > Run Microsoft Office Diagnostics).

But if you’re using Word 2010, you’ll have to do the repair from the Control Panel (Control Panel > Programs and Features, select Microsoft Office 2010, click Change, then select Repair). Microsoft changed this for Office 2010 (details here: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc178954.aspx).

Step 5: Accept as many tracked changes as possible

Tracked changes add a lot of ‘overhead’ to a Word document, so if you can, accept/reject as many tracked changes as you possibly can. All of them, if possible.

However, you may work in an environment (as I do) where track changes are required for regulatory purposes, at least while the document is undergoing revision. There may be some that can be dealt with that aren’t required for regulator approval, such as track changes to fields, formatting changes, minor punctuation or case changes that don’t change the meaning of the text, deletion/addition of spaces or non-breaking spaces, etc. So deal with as many of these as possible.

Step 6: Do a ‘Maggie’ on the document

Named after the person who first documented this technique (Maggie Secara?), to ‘Maggie’ a Word document means to copy everything in it EXCEPT the very last paragraph mark (make sure you turn on the Show/Hide icon to see the paragraph marks) and then paste it into a new document. When you see the Paste Options button (at the end of the document), select Keep Source Formatting. Save the new document with a different file name.

It seems that a lot of the Word formatting and other ‘instructions’ are hidden behind or stored in that last paragraph marker and we mortals never get to see them. So by copying everything except the last paragraph marker into a new document, you may leave behind whatever was causing the corruption.

You may still have some tidying up with the styles, page layout settings, etc. to do after doing this — sometimes reapplying the template will help. But you will need to check the entire document and make sure everything is as it should be. The quick bit of this technique is the copy/paste; checking the document and reapplying styles, page layouts etc. will take a bit of time. However, in the tests I did, everything seems to be preserved.

‘Doing a Maggie’ has saved many an unstable Word document from complete corruption.

Step 7: Create a new document and copy/paste the old into it as plain text

This is the most time consuming and frustrating option and there’s NO guarantee that anything except the text will be preserved, especially things like track changes.

If you paste as plain text into a new document, you will have to:

  • reapply styles
  • reinsert captions
  • reassign cross-references
  • somehow redo the tracked changes
  • reinsert comments
  • reinsert section breaks
  • reinsert headers/footers, etc.

Reapplying the template to the document will help when it comes to reapplying styles, but everything else will have to be done manually.

This method is ONLY recommended if you’ve tried absolutely everything else and the document is still unstable.

If you have any other suggestions for rescuing an unstable Word document, please add them to the Comments below. Good luck!

[Links last checked 18 July 2012]

One comment

  1. thanks for so much detail, great help.
    I have a problem of keeping customizing previous reports

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