Preventing and Recovering Lost Documents

What to Do If the Computer Eats Your Homework

Teen girl using laptop computer, unhappy
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It's a terrible sinking feeling that every writer knows: searching in vain for a paper that took hours or days to create. Unfortunately, there probably isn't a student alive who hasn't lost a paper or other work on the computer at some point.

There are ways to avoid this terrible plight. The best thing you can do is educate yourself and prepare ahead of time, by setting up your computer to save your work and create a backup copy of everything.

If the worst happens, however, there may be some ways to recover your work when using a PC.

Problem: All My Work Disappeared!

One problem that can startle a writer is seeing everything disappear instantly as you are typing. This can happen if you accidentally select or highlight any portion of your work.

When you highlight a passage of any length—from a single word to a hundred pages—and then type any letter or symbol, the program replaces the highlighted text with whatever comes next. So if you highlight your entire paper and accidentally type a “b” you’ll end up with only the single letter. Scary!

Solution: You can fix this by going to Edit and Undo. That process will take you backward through your most recent actions. Be careful! You should do this immediately before an automatic save occurs.

Problem: My Computer Crashed

Or my computer froze, and my paper disappeared!

Who hasn’t suffered this agony?

We’re typing along the night before the paper is due and our system starts acting up! This can be a real nightmare. The good news is that most programs save your work automatically about every ten minutes. You can also set up your system to save more often.

Solution: It’s best to set up for an automatic save every minute or two.

We can type a lot of information in a short time, so you should save your work frequently.

In Microsoft Word, go to Tools and Options, then select Save. There should be a box marked AutoRecover. Make sure the box is checked, and adjust the minutes.

You should also see a selection for Always Create a Backup Copy. It’s a good idea to check that box, as well.

Problem: I accidentally deleted my paper!

This is another common mistake. Sometimes our fingers act before our brains get warmed up, and we delete things or save over them without thinking. The good news is, those documents and files can sometimes be recovered.

Solution: Go to the Recycle Bin to see if you can find your work. Once you locate it, click on it and accept the option to Restore.

You may also find deleted work by finding the options to Search Hidden Files and Folders. Files that are deleted don’t really disappear until they are overwritten. Until then, they may be stored on your computer but “hidden.”

To try this recovery process using a Windows system, go to Start and Search. Select Advanced Search and you should see an option for including hidden files in your search. Good luck!

Problem: I know I saved it, but I can’t find it!

Sometimes it can seem like our work has disappeared into thin air, but it hasn’t really. For various reasons, we can sometimes accidentally save our work in a temporary file or other strange place, which makes us feel a little crazy when we try to open it later. These files can be difficult to open again.

Solution: If you know you’ve saved your work but you can’t find it in a logical place, try looking in Temporary Files and other odd places. You may need to do an Advanced Search.

Problem: I saved my work on a flash drive and now I’ve lost it!

Ouch. There’s not much we can do about a lost flash drive or floppy disk. You could try going to the computer where you worked to see if you can find a backup copy through an advanced search.

Solution: There is a better way to avoid losing work if you are willing to take preventive measures ahead of time.

Each time you write a paper or other work that you can’t afford to lose, take time to send yourself a copy by email attachment.

If you get into this habit, you will never lose another paper. You can access it from any computer!

Tips to Avoid Losing Your Work

  • Use an online backup like iCloud and save often.
  • If you’re working on a lengthy paper, always send yourself a copy by email attachment every time you update it.
  • Always save a few versions every time you stop working. Save one to an external drive and one to the hard drive.
  • Get In the habit of choosing the Yes option when the computer asks if you want to save changes. There are very few reasons for selecting No, so think carefully about what you’re doing every time you shut down your program.
  • Sometimes we accidentally save two versions of our work, so one will be more updated than another. This can cause serious confusion. Avoid opening an old version that hasn’t been updated by sorting your documents by Date when you open them.