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Can we recover a saved-over Word file?
September 3, 2006 12:48 PM   Subscribe

My parents' neighbor accidentally saved a blank file over the book she's writing in Microsoft Word 2003. The last backup she has is from April. Is there any way to recover a more recent version, or at least pieces of it?

My parents' not-at-all-tech-savvy neighbor has been working on a book about her life as a civil-rights reporter for many years, and she's close to finishing. Today, as she was working on finishing touches, (what follows is my reconstruction) she accidentally hit 'select all' and typed a character, erasing the whole document, and then somehow managed to save and close the document. My parents came over to try and help, but they're not too tech savvy either and I'm not sure whether they've done any good; they did discover though that Word wasn't set to save backups. (D'oh!)

This is a really really important document to my neighbor, and the most recent full version she's got is many months old and she's made a lot of changes since then. Is there anything we can do to get the old file back, or any of the text from the old file?

(I should note that I live a thousand miles away from them, so I can't go over there and do anything myself, so anything that needs to be done is going to have to be done by my parents.)
posted by jacobm to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Sometimes there are .temp or .tmp files on the computer with the previous revisions, but I think Word deletes those when you close the program.
posted by gramcracker at 12:53 PM on September 3, 2006


Yikes! She is most likely out of luck. If it was a deletion then there would be hope... but once you've written over a file, then the file system pointer has been reset to new data and the original data has been lost.

There maybe traces of it on the hard drive, but then you are looking at spending big bucks for a data recovery expert and even after spending those big bucks the expert will probably not come up with anything useful. I know of no software that can be used to sweep the hard drive for random bits that start to look like traces of a word document.

Lesson learned though. Back up, back up, and do more backing up. Save new versions of a file with a new file name and save the old versions of the file just in case you need to go back and look at it. You can never backup things up enough. Sometimes it takes you a desaster like this to learn the lesson. Don't trust technology!
posted by nickerbocker at 12:57 PM on September 3, 2006


Just in case you don't know already -- do NOT use the computer or start up / shut down until you get some good advice here. Any disk activity may overwrite bits and pieces.
posted by chef_boyardee at 12:58 PM on September 3, 2006


In theory one could scour the unused sectors of the disk for the pieces of the file and put them back together.

In theory.

It'd be a lot easier if it were a plain text file, of course. And if disks today didn't have 20 bajillion sectors. And if operating systems today weren't doing several things at once which could immediately overwrite any freed sectors.
posted by kindall at 12:59 PM on September 3, 2006


I'm probably not the person to answer this question, but I feel your pain (Word almost killed a book I had written). There are companies that can recover files that have been erased. You can find them on the web. They are expensive. You've got to give them the hard drive, of course.

Remote possibility: did she ever send an earlier version of the document to any one as an email attachment? If so, she could go back into her "sent items" folder and retreve that version of the file.

What a bummer.
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:00 PM on September 3, 2006


Yeah..exactly what kindall and chef_boyardee said. In theory it is possible. But Windows can't wait to overwrite free sectors with "stuff." Also, Word doesn't save plain text by default, it saves in a binary form which makes searching those free sectors a real pain because it will all look like garbage.
posted by nickerbocker at 1:02 PM on September 3, 2006


Also, recommend to her to rename the file every day or every week.
posted by k8t at 1:03 PM on September 3, 2006


I think she's pretty much screwed. The data recovery tools available online can fix or retrieve corrupted or damaged files, but for a 'healthy' file that's been overwritten, I don't think there's anything she can do except learn a hard lesson.
posted by essexjan at 1:07 PM on September 3, 2006


If the file is called BOOK.DOC, have a look for a hidden file called ~$OOK.DOC in the same folder. You're almost certainly doomed though :/
posted by ed\26h at 1:10 PM on September 3, 2006


This might not be seen as helpful, but do not use Word for this. It'll make a lot more sense later.
posted by odinsdream at 1:14 PM on September 3, 2006


Word doesn't save plain text by default, it saves in a binary form which makes searching those free sectors a real pain because it will all look like garbage.

More precisely - all the content will be there in plain text but will be surrounded by chunks of binary. So searching for the plain text of the document should still return results.
posted by ed\26h at 1:18 PM on September 3, 2006


We got it back!

Well, mostly, anyway. What we did was basically combine gramcracker and nickerbocker's points together. The actual book file itself was useless, and there weren't any relevant temporary file still on disk. BUT --- there were were two relevant temporary files that had been deleted. We undeleted those using FreeUndelete that my dad installed onto a USB drive from his computer. One of them contained about the last two-thirds of the book as of August 30, and my neighbor says that that the first third probably hasn't changed much since the April 30th version.

So, my parents and she are going to stitch the back and the temp file together, and all will be well. Yay!
posted by jacobm at 1:58 PM on September 3, 2006 [2 favorites]


make sure she backs it up regularly and often from now on!!
posted by knapah at 2:42 PM on September 3, 2006


This might not be seen as helpful, but do not use Word for this. It'll make a lot more sense later.

I hope that post does.
posted by ed\26h at 4:37 PM on September 3, 2006


Stories like this have always made me wonder why Word or other programs don't have an "important document" mode which would just spit out copies regularly and in several places on your disks, including external disks (and perhaps even internet sites) at the expense of mere disk space. Cleanups of older revs could then be done manually.
posted by vacapinta at 8:23 PM on September 3, 2006


vacapinta writes "Stories like this have always made me wonder why Word or other programs don't have an 'important document' mode which would just spit out copies regularly and in several places on your disks"

VMS has this capability built into the OS, one of the many things I miss running windows. I manage it manually now. Everytime I open an important file I immediately do a save as. If for example the file I'm working on is Book.DOC I do a save as to Book.06.09.04.a.DOC. If I've put four hours of sweaty work into it I then save as Book.06.09.04.b.DOC. Every few weeks I go back and delete all the older versions that I'm confident I no longer will need to revert to.
posted by Mitheral at 10:37 AM on September 4, 2006


I have used a file recovery program called File Scavenger (http:/www.quetek.com). It costs about $50 to buy, but I have had good results with it. If the document was overwritten some time ago, and the computer has had a lot of activity since then, you may be out of luck, since the sectors will have been refilled with new data. If you have not done anything much with the computer since the incident, your chances are pretty good.

In my workplace, a computer was infected with some virus, and our IT technician re-formatted the hard drive and re-installed Windows and Office to be rid of it. He also added virus scanners, patches, and updates. The user of this machine was upset because she did not have a backup copy of some of the documents, and was not told that the computer would be wiped.

I used File Scavenger, and was able to recover almost all of the relevant documents. (I got a box of donuts for that). If this book is important, I'd say that the price is right.

--
My own practice is to save incremental copies of long, important documents. These files have names that begin with the current date (or date and time) in the form "060905" for September 5, 2006. I also have an automatic offsite backup service to hold documents in my "Current Work" folder.
posted by DanYHKim at 5:05 PM on September 5, 2006


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