What Causes Microsoft Word Document Corruption?

It’s one of the most terrifying error messages imaginable: “Word was unable to read this document.” Whether you use Word for school, work, or creative exploration, you use it for something important—and a damaged or corrupt file can have serious implications.

But what is file corruption, exactly, and why does it seem to happen to Word documents so often? More importantly, is there a way to stop the issue from happening?

The good news is that if you’ve got a corrupt Word doc, you can probably save it (to a degree). You can skip to that section if you’d like some quick answers, but first, let’s look at how corruption occurs.

Word Document Corruption: The Causes, and a Few Solutions

To put it simply, document corruption occurs when a program writes something incorrectly, or when a write process is interrupted before it can complete. That leaves a bit of data that doesn’t make sense to the program.

Why is that an issue? The application doesn’t have the resources to present your file. In Word, the file’s header often becomes corrupt, so it doesn’t seem like a valid file.

Several factors can increase the likelihood of document data corruption:

  • The Size of the File. Larger files put more stress on the application, raising the chances of a failed write operation. Generally, this only becomes an issue when a file crosses the 200-kilobyte threshold.Using images and other non-text elements can quickly increase the size of your files, so be careful. Use compressed image formats wherever possible.
  • The Document File Format. The newer .docx format is much more stable than the old .doc format, so if you haven’t switched over for some reason, do it.
  • Complex Functions. Features like Track Changes, which prompt the Word software to write more frequently, can cause issues. Likewise, corruption is more likely to occur when moving images, applying formatting, or performing other advanced functions.
  • Direct Formatting. “Wait,” you’re probably saying, “applying formatting causes corruption?” Well, no, but in large documents, it complicates things. Defining the paragraph and character styles can give you the same effect without putting the same strain on the application.Plus, if you suddenly need to change formatting across your entire document, you can do so easily.
  • File Location. It’s possible that the file corruption occurred due to an issue with your storage media (a hard drive, solid-state-drive, or flash drive). If you’re sure that this is the case, don’t run CHKDSK or similar utilities; contact a data recovery company. 

    Usually, if your storage media is encountering issues, you’ll notice some slowdown or other odd behaviors. Hard drives might also make noises. Again, if that’s the case, don’t go further—shut down your computer immediately and call a professional.

  • User Behavior. If you suddenly shut down Microsoft Word without going through the proper process, if you have 1,000 other programs open, or if you unplug your computer/storage media, you might create corruption by interrupting the write process.

Here’s the most important tip in this entire article: make regular backups of important files. That’s true regardless of the version of Word you’re using—and even if you’re using Google Drive or another cloud solution. No document is completely safe from corruption, so keep multiple copies.

Fixing Word Document Corruption: What To Do, and What Not To Do

Okay, so you’ve got a corrupt Word document. Are you out of luck?

Probably not, but before we start, take note: if the data is absolutely vital, call a data recovery company. While the chances of accidental damage are pretty slim, they’re worth consideration if you’re dealing with a document that has significant financial or sentimental value.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s what to do. First, make a copy of the corrupted file (in Windows, right-click, select “Copy,” then right-click on a blank space on your desktop or in any other folder and select “Paste”) . Work from the corrupted copy.

If your computer is experiencing any other issues such as abnormally slow operation, you should move the copied file to removable media and work on another machine. Note that corruption can occur as a hard drive starts to fail (and this type of corruption might not be fixable with the methods outlined below).

To recover the corrupt Word document, you can try one of the following methods:

Open and Repair. Newer versions of Word support this function, which addresses common issues with corrupted files. From the “Open File” dialog box, right-click on the corrupt document and select “Open and Repair.”

Restore a Shadow Copy. Newer versions of Windows create backups, or “shadow copies,” of certain files, and documents often fit the bill. Try right-clicking on the original file (not the copy), then selecting “Restore Previous Versions” if the option’s available. You’ll lose some data, but the majority of the file should be accessible.

Rebuild the File Header with a Hex Editor. This is an advanced technique, and we won’t get into it here, but if you’re comfortable with a hex editor, you can often manually rebuild the Word document’s header to restore the file.

Open the File as a TXT. Change the file extension to .txt and open the file with a simple text editor (such as Notepad). You can also convert files to .rtf, which is a rich text format; you’ll lose some formatting. Search for an online file conversion tool if you’re going this route.

You’ll fix most corrupt Word documents with one of the first two methods listed, but the others are also options. Feel free to leave us a comment if you’ve found another way to restore corrupt files, and we’ll edit this article with any great suggestions. Good luck!


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