Avoid Microsoft Word document corruption with a few simple techniques

MVP John McGhie spends his days consulting as a Document Engineer and many of his evenings answering questions in the Microsoft Answers forums. His specialty is long and complex documents done mostly in Microsoft Word.

In one of his recent answers he stated:

It is some years since I lost a document to “corruption” in Word for Mac. Come to think of it, I have probably “never” completely lost one.

I use a few simple techniques that avoid corruption. I do very long ( greater than 5,000 pages) very complex documents in Word for a living, so I had to learn these techniques.

This is his advice  (slightly edited for clarity):

  1. Keep Microsoft Office up to date. Use Help –> Check for Updates, and set that to check automatically for updates. Word will simply not run on OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) without all its updates.
  2. Never use Track Changes. Just never, for anything. Instead, use Compare Documents (found under Tools menu –> Track Changes –> Compare Documents…). It gives you the same result, but won’t corrupt the document.
  3. Never use direct formatting, for anything. Use View menu –> Styles for all formatting.
  4. Never use Drag-and-drop editing. Use “Cut” and “Paste” instead. I am one of the worst offenders here: Drag-and-drop is so tempting. But it is fatal!
  5. Never change format between .doc and .docx. Change any .doc you see to .docx and leave it that way. Some people keep repeating the myth that .doc and .docx are equivalent. They are not, and never were! The .doc format is incapable of describing or storing the things a .docx file can contain. Each time you downgrade to .doc, you are ripping out or downgrading the information inside. There’s no need for .doc any more. And they’re fragile! They break constantly! Anyone who can read .doc can also read .docx, so send them that. Ensure you include the file extension on the end, and the recipient will usually never know you’ve sent a .docx.

John also contributes to the The Word MVP Site, which is maintained by Microsoft Word experts and a great resource for using Word to its fullest potential and troubleshooting. It includes a lengthy Mac-specific section as well.

Thanks, John, for allowing me to repost your advice here. It sounds simple but the best solutions are often simple and straight-forward.

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6 comments to Avoid Microsoft Word document corruption with a few simple techniques

  • Tech Trainer

    I’ve also been burned many times by drag-and-drop crashes. I’d love to make Word more stable by disabling drag-and-drop, but I assume that’s not possible.

  • Paul Gorski

    My experience, supporting Word for Mac on a daily basis in a print and web production environment is that the .docx format, at least on Mac, is one of the flakiest file formats out there. Our default is to save as .doc and this prevents not only problems in Word, but problems in Outlook. In Entourage and now Outlook, emails with one PDF attachment and one .docx attachment will often get stuck in the outbox. Zipping the pair or sending a .doc instead .docx prevents or solves the problem.

    It certainly is NOT true that anyone who has a program that can open a .doc file can open a .docx file. The two formats (as the author noted) are not the same and do not translate the same way. If Microsoft has stuck with the true ODF .odt standard, there might be better cross application compatibility. But Microsoft chose to create its own new XML standard, slightly different than the established standard.

    I used to be a “never-use-track changes” type of guy too, but Track Changes seems to be much more reliable in Word 2011. Track Changes cross-platform, PC-Mac, never really worked that well anyway, until Word 2011. While I’m still not confident Track Changes won’t corrupt a document, I’m a bit more confident about it now.

    Also, Track Changes functionally isn’t the same as Compare. Slightly different steps, and our PC users demand that Track Changes be on so they can see all the multiple edits by multiple editors. When you’re talking workflow, and how Word files behave will being stored in a document management system, Compare and Track Changes are simply not the same.

  • William LeGro

    Word for Mac 2011 just this morning decided to stop me from dragging and dropping. It’s still enabled in Preferences. I’m a writer and have been using this function for as long as Word as had it with no problem. I don’t understand what kind of corruption it can cause, but I do want it back. I believe I’m fully updated, but even if not, why would it suddenly stop working?

  • smsturcke

    Sorry to trouble you. I have a macbook pro 2007 vintage, which still works well with OS 10.5.8. I have hundreds of MS Word docs extention .doc and am afraid to upgrade in case I can’t access some Word files 10 years old and older which I constantly need, not to mention lots which I haven’t used recently but will eventually need to access.
    Apart from any advice you can give me on the above, I have a new Word doc which I wish to save as pdf and upload to iPad. The text on one page is corrupt; it duplicates a word, and nothing I do can undo the duplication, despite several retypes of the offending phrase in the Word doc, and saves as pdf. Always the word “temple” is duplicated! What have I done?
    Thank you in anticipation of your help.