If there’s one application that’s used more often than just about any other, it’s probably Microsoft Word. In fact, there is probably a lot of very important corporate information tied up inside Word documents in your organization. Most of the time, Word documents load with little problem. But to recover information from a Word document that doesn’t open, follow these steps.

Why the doc might not open
In a networked environment, documents may fail to open due to permission problems or file sharing problems. Whether networked or stand-alone, documents may also fail to open because the data file itself is corrupted or because the file is being loaded from a damaged floppy disk.

The key to getting data out of Word documents that won’t load is to not panic. You should be able to retrieve at least portions of the document, if not the entire thing, if you take time to carefully identify what’s causing the problems and using these tricks to get around them.

Check networking issues
In a networked environment, Microsoft Word locks data files on a network preventing them from being edited by more than one person at a time. This prevents users from simultaneously making changes to a file, which can cause confusion and data loss.

If a user tries to open a file on a network and the file is locked, Word will display a dialog box informing the user that someone else is using the file. The user can either wait until the current user exits the file, or they can open a copy of the file to make changes on. The user can then save the changes in a different file.

Sometimes users don’t like to open identical files, and the person holding the file open may have gone home for the day. If users are extremely persistent about having access to a particular file, they can force the original user off the network, closing the file. Naturally, this will cause the original user to lose whatever changes were made to the file, so you should use this power carefully.

Other network problems that prevent a file from being opened can relate to the rights a user has on a particular share. Normally, this shouldn’t be a problem, especially if a user has previously opened the data file on the same share where the file was created. However, if directories have been copied from one server to another, or other permissions have been worked on either at the group or user level, things can get messed up to the point where the user can see the file but may not be able to access it properly. In this case, check the user’s permissions and share permissions to make sure nothing has changed.

Try another document or another workstation
If one Word document won’t open, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with that document. There might be something wrong with the workstation or the version of Word on the workstation. You can troubleshoot this problem two ways.

First, try opening other Word documents on the workstation. Naturally, if nothing opens on the workstation, you’ve got bigger issues to deal with than one little Word document.

If other files will open, then you can try opening the file on another workstation on your network. This will help make sure that the problem is with the Word document itself and not something peculiar on the workstation.

Try recovering the document within Word
If the files won’t open normally within Word, you still may be able to recover the data that the files contain. You’ll probably lose formatting, such as fonts, colors, graphics, and bullets, but you may be able to at least recover the text inside the document.

There are several ways to recover information contained in a data file from within Word. You can sometimes recover information in a Word document by inserting the file into another Word document. To do so, create a new Word file using the Normal.dot template by going to File | New | Blank Document. When the blank page appears, click Insert | File. When the Insert File dialog box opens, select the troublesome Word document and click OK. The file should appear in the new document. You can then save the file to a new file name and continue.

If this doesn’t work, you can try to open the file by using Word’s linking feature. You’ll start by creating a dummy Word document and then going to File | New | Blank Document. Type any text you want into the new document. Select the text and then click Edit | Copy.

Next, create another dummy Word document. In this new dummy document, click Edit | Paste Special. When the Paste Special window appears, click the Paste Link radio button and select Formatted Text. When you click OK, the information you copied from the first dummy document appears.

After that, click Edit | Links. This displays the Links window. Select the first link and click Change Source. When the Change Source window appears, select the troublesome Word document, click Open, and click OK. The document should appear in your second dummy Word document. Then, break the link by clicking Edit | Links | Break Link. Click Yes when Word asks you if you’re sure you want to break the link.

Another way you can recover documents inside of Word is to use Word’s text converter. Click File | Open. When the Open dialog box appears, select the troublesome Word document. But, instead of clicking OK, first select Recover Text From Any File from the Files Of Type drop-down list. This filter will import straight ASCII text from any file, including your damaged Word document. You will lose Word formatting, but you should at least be able to extract most of the text information from the file.

Try another word processor
If Word won’t recover the file properly, you may have luck using another word processor. Many word processors, such as WordPerfect and OpenOffice, have decent Word filters that may be able to open the file. As a matter of fact, it’s possible that a user created or modified the document using a non-Microsoft product in the first place; saving the file with a .doc extension that confused Word into thinking the file was native. If you don’t have access to a non-Microsoft word processor, you can always try to open the file with Notepad or WordPad.

These programs can be a quick way to get text out of a file. You’ll probably have to strip out odd formatting characters that the programs create from the formatting characters that Word uses. Save the file to an .rtf or .txt file, and then you should be able to open the file from inside of Word.

Try a sector editor
If you get truly desperate, you can always resort to a sector editor to recover the data in the file. Programs like WinHex can allow you to view and copy information directly from within the file. It can be a painstaking process, but if you can’t open an important file any other way, it can be your only choice. Just be careful when using sector editors, because they can also potentially damage system files or your hard drive, causing you to lose even more information.

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays