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How to recover unsaved or lost Word documents Mac

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There are a few different computer-related disasters that can quickly drain the colour from your face. These include pressing Reply All rather than just Reply, realising that the hard drive that just failed contained videos and photos you hadn’t backed up, or that fateful moment when a document you’ve been busily working on suddenly disappears, either because your Mac crashed or froze, or because you forgot to save, or accidentally clicked on delete. In the case of the latter all might not be lost, and we’ll show you how you might recover that vanished Word missive once more.

If it’s not a Word document you’ve lost one of these articles might be helpful: How to recover lost TextEdit documents or How to recover deleted files.

Before you panic, there is a reasonably good chance that you can get your document back. We’ll run through a few options below that might work for you.

Step 1: Check the Trash

In some cases, your file might be missing because you deleted it by accident. It’s easily done when you are in a hurry and in a moment of madness, while closing multiple documents, you click on Delete when you meant to Save. This isn’t as disastrous as it sounds, as the document might be found in the Trash.

  1. To check if this is the case go to the Trash can icon in the dock and double click.
  2. You’ll now see the contents of the trash. Look for your file and if it’s there you’ll need to highlight it, right-click, then select Put Back. This will place the file back in the folder where it was originally saved and you can open it once more.  

How to recover lost documents in Word for Mac: Check the trash

Step 2: Recover your documents using Time Machine

If everything is working as it should then it’s quite hard to lose a file in Word. The autosave feature means that in the event of an accident you should still have the bulk of your work, except for the last ten minutes.

Of course, there are occasions when things don’t work as they should, and in that case you’ll need to turn to your backups. If you’re using Time Machine to back up your Mac then you’ll be able to roll back to the when the file was still on your system. Follow our Complete guide to Time Machine for instructions on how to recover your files.

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If you are unfortunate enough not to have a backup routine then we suggest beginning one immediately. Macs are very reliable machines, but there is always a risk of something going wrong, so it’s best to protect yourself against potential disaster.

Try looking at our How to back up a Mac feature that highlights several solutions for this essential practice.

Step 3: Look for the file in the Word AutoRecovery folder

Word for Mac has a built-in autosave feature called AutoRecover which is on by default. This means that Word is quietly saving the document you are working on without you needing to manually tell the software to do so. For this feature to function properly you’ll need to initially save the document with a name, then Word will make incremental saves every ten minutes.

If the document was lost because your computer or software shut down unexpectedly then you should be prompted with a recovered file when you relaunch Word. If for some reason this isn’t the case then you still might be able to find a version of it in the AutoRecover folder.

The way this works depends on the version of Word for Mac you are using. We’ll look at each separately below.

Want to get to know Word better? Read our Top tips for Word for Mac.

How to find the AutoRecovery folder in Word 2011

If you are using Word 2011 it’s easy to locate the AutoRecovery folder:

  1. Click on the File option in the Menu bar then search for Autorecover.
  2. If you use Word often then there might be a few different Autorecover files, so check the date to see which one matches your missing item.
  3. Once you’ve found the document just click on it to open it up, then remember to save it again under a new name.
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Even if you don’t find your document in the AutoRecovery folder, it may not be the case that they aren’t there. Files in the AutoRecover folder don’t always show up.

We have first hand experience of this. In the past, our Mac has ‘helpfully’ saved a Word document in the Office 2011 AutoRecovery folder. This would not be an issue, except for the fact that when we then accessed the folder (just a quick search in Spotlight for Office 2011 AutoRecovery) the files were nowhere to be seen.

As you can see from this screen grab, the most recent file in our AutoRecovery folder wass from 5 March, but we know that there are more recent files saved there.

How to recover lost documents in Word for Mac: Where is my AutoRecovery Word document saved?

The problem with the AutoRecovery file is that it is located in a Library folder that isn’t visible by default, and that will have some impact on whether your files are visible or not.

Fortunately there is a way to locate the file. Here’s how…

How to view files in Office 2011 AutoRecovery folder

  1. Go to the Finder, and press Alt (or Option) while selecting Go from the menu at the top of the page. This will make the Library folder visible (if you don’t press Alt you won’t see it – and you have to keep Alt pressed or it will vanish).
  2. Next go to the following folders: Application Support > Microsoft > Office > Office 2011 AutoRecovery.
  3. When you see the Office 2011 in this view you will be able to locate your file.

How to find the AutoRecovery folder in Word 2016

Those using Word 2016 have more of a challenge on their hands. Here’s how to find AutoRecover in Word 2016:

  1. In Word 2016, the AutoRecovery folder is buried deep in the system and requires your Mac to display hidden files, so the first step is to reveal these secret folders, to do so we recommend following our advice here: How to show hidden files and folder on a Mac.
  2. With this done you’ll need to open Finder then click on the Home icon in the left-hand column (it’s usually accompanied by your name). Now navigate to the following folder:
    Library/Containers/com.microsoft.Word/Data/Library/Preferences/AutoRecovery/How to recover lost documents in Word for Mac: Word for Mac AutoRecover feature
  3. If you have any AutoRecovery files then they will be in here. One thing to remember is that AutoRecovery files are temporary and only exist if they think that Word shut down unexpectedly. So, if you clicked Delete rather than Save when you were closing the document there won’t be an AutoRecovery file for it.
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Step 4: Look in the Temporary folder

Your Mac also has a folder where it might temporarily keep files. The Temporary folder isn’t easy to find though.

To find the Temporary folder, use Terminal (find it in Applications > Utilities > Terminal, or Spotlight search for Terminal by pressing Command + Space. 

  1. Open Terminal
  2. Type: open $TMPDIR
  3. Press Enter.

Inside this TMP folder you’ll should find a folder called Temporaryitems. It’s possible that your document might be inside.

Tips to avoid lost Word files

Save first, Save often

It goes without saying that you should save frequently especially if your Mac can be a bit unreliable.

You may be able to rely on Word autosaving for you, but remember that you have to save the file first to really benefit from Autosave.

Changing the autosave frequency

A helpful thing to know is that you can reduce the gaps between autosaves on Word for Mac. By default they are set at ten minute intervals, but it’s easy to make them more frequent.  

In Word go up to the Menu bar at the top of the screen and click on Word. From the dropdown menu select Preferences and then in the Output and Sharing section you’ll see a disk icon named Save. Click this and you’ll now be able to adjust the time between saves by entering a value into the ‘Save every X minutes’ box at the bottom.

How to recover lost documents in Word for Mac: Changing the autosave frequency

While it might be tempting to set it as low as possible, bear in mind that Word’s performance will be hampered slightly if it’s saving every minute, especially if you are working on a big file. Experiment to see what setting works best for you.



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