A spy looking at a (fake) secret document with a magnifying lens.
Image: Grenar/Adobe Stock

Most Word documents contain sensitive information that you might not want shared. Not everyone needs to worry about this, but it’s something to think about even if you’re not producing legal, financial, government or other sensitive business documents. Most of us might only need to redact personal data, such as our name as the document’s author. If you’re in an industry that requires a heavier hand, your company might have internal conventions about what to redact. In this article, I’ll show you several steps you can take to redact a Word document. This article uses Word, but all the information applies to Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint as well.

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I’m using Microsoft 365 desktop on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use an earlier version. Office apps support the Document Inspector through 2010. For your convenience, you can download the demonstration .docx and .doc files. Word for the web doesn’t offer the Document Inspector.

When redacting a Word document, always work with a copy. Always.

How to run Document Inspector in Word

Microsoft Word lets you delete metadata that contains personal and confidential information from a document. It’s not part of the content—you won’t see it in the content—but it can be easily exposed when distributing an electronic copy.

Metadata is data about data. More specifically, metadata describes the document’s data. Word uses it internally to organize, index, search and understand the content. For instance, Word metadata elements might include a document’s title, properties, tags and so on—mostly harmless. It also contains the author by name, when the document was created and last modified, hidden text and more—not so harmless.

You might think all this is much ado about nothing, but it won’t hurt to remove some metadata elements before you distribute a document. This is the place to start: Run the Word Inspect Document feature. Doing so will allow you to remove information that you don’t want shared with the document’s recipients.

Once the document is ready for distribution, make a copy and distribute the redacted. The original should not be distributed but should be maintained for historical purposes. That’s sounds rather dramatic and unnecessary for most of us; and fortunately, the choice is yours. First, run Word’s Inspect Document feature as follows:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Select Info in the left pane and then click the Check for Issues option (Figure A) and click Inspect Document from the dropdown.

Figure A

The Check for Issues option lets you search for metadata you might want to delete.
The Check for Issues option lets you search for metadata you might want to delete.
  1. In the resulting dialog, check all the issues you want inspected (Figure B). I recommend checking them all, because it doesn’t take long, even in a long document. However, if you reinspect the document later, you might need to check only a few issues.

Figure B

Check issues you want inspected.
Check issues you want inspected.
  1. Remove found issues by clicking the Remove All buttons (Figure C).

Figure C

The Document Inspector returns a list of issues you might want to remove.
The Document Inspector returns a list of issues you might want to remove.
  1. Save the copy.

The inspection gives you a good start by removing metadata elements, but there’s much more to consider.

Redact by removing words and phrases in Word

The easiest way to redact sensitive information in the document’s content is to use Word’s Replace feature—continue to work with the same copy you ran the Document Inspector on in the last section.

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Simply enter the content you want to remove in the Find What control and then enter XXXXXXXX or the term [REDACTED], as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Replace the sensitive content.
Replace the sensitive content.

In most cases, you can use Replace All, so it’s a quick task. With some documentation, you must specify the number of characters removed. If this is the case, select the data and check Word’s status bar because it will display the number of characters. Then, you can add the number to the replacement string.

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The hard part is coming up with the list of information you want to remove. You must remember to search for terms in all forms. For instance, if you’re removing a client’s name, you might have to search for the client’s full name, first name, last name, Mr./Ms. last name, initials, and so on. Then there’s the client’s address, business name and more. There’s no help for this other than knowing your document and being thorough.

Redact by replacing content with black rectangles

Almost all of us have seen a redacted document where the content is covered with black rectangles, like the document shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Remove the sensitive content and then replace it with black rectangles.
Remove the sensitive content and then replace it with black rectangles.

If you’re sharing the document electronically, you must remove the content and then replace it with equitable spacing with a black rectangular shape. You can’t just cover the content because someone who knows what they’re doing can remove the black rectangles.

If you download the demonstration files, you can easily remove the black rectangles—select and click Delete. Beneath, you will see the data I tried to hide. I did this on purpose to make a point. You must remove the data. You can’t just hide it and this is why.

Redact by creating an image

One of the safest ways to redact content is to take pictures of the redacted document file—.docx format—page by page. Simply take a screen shot of each page and distribute those. This way, there’s no opportunity for the recipients to electronically expose anything. However, this method would be tedious with a long document.

Run the Document Inspector in Word again

Once you’ve completely redacted all the content in the document, run the Document Inspector again. It probably won’t catch a thing, but that one time is does, it can save you a lot of trouble.

Third-party products for redaction

Earlier versions of Word offered a dedicated redaction tool, but it’s no longer supported. There are other tools on the market; most specialize in legal documents.

Whatever redaction method you choose, always double-check for sensitive information possibly missed. Remember, that information might occur in more than one form. In addition, remember to work with a copy so you have a completely in-tact version.