Don't Lose Your Work!

"I was working on a document for three hours, something happened, the program closed, and all my work is gone! Can I get it back?"

Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is no.

User looking sad while sitting at laptop after having lost work

The process of creating literature—with your mind a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives—is impossible to recreate in exactly the same way after the results of your work are suddenly and unexpectedly wiped out. This applies to any kind of writing, whether a short story, a business letter, or an article for the J.D. Fox Micro Resource Center. For hours, you made countless changes both for substance and style. And when it vanishes, even if you rewrite it and are happy with the results, there's always the lingering feeling of permanent loss that leaves a lump in your throat.

This article covers how you can avoid ever losing significant work from a program crash, the computer locking up, or even just forgetting to save a file when you close the program. It doesn't cover comprehensive data backup, which is a completely different topic. Although regular backup is of supreme importance, even having a daily backup system won't help you if a document you've been working on all day suddenly disappears.

So, here are the tips:

1. Understand how the program you're using saves your files

For much of computer history, desktop computer programs such as word processors and spreadsheets have all worked the same. That is, your document is not saved unless you click the Save icon. If you don't, the computer won't remember any of it if the power goes out or the program seizes up and shuts down. When you close the file, the program will ask you if you want to save your changes. If you opt not to, you will lose changes you made since the document was last saved; if you had never saved it from the time you first started the document, then all your work will be lost.

For many years now, desktop programs like Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and OpenOffice on Windows, as well as Microsoft Word on a Mac, have a function called auto-save, auto-recovery, or automatic backup. This will save your document to a backup file as you work on a time interval (usually 15 minutes). Depending on the program and even the version, exactly how it works can vary. For example, some programs will delete the backup if you close without saving, while some will keep it. And the method for restoring from the backup will vary from program to program.

Recent versions of Apple applications like Pages and TextEdit on an iMac or MacBook will save your file immediately every time you make a change, and automatically save without prompting when you close the program. But, instead of just saving a single, updated backup copy, these programs save multiple versions of your file. You can access these backups by clicking File then Revert, and revert to any past revision of the file.

Cloud-based applications, such as Pages for Apple iCloud, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Microsoft Office Online, and most any mobile app on a phone or tablet, will also automatically save your changes as you type, and allow you to view and revert to past revisions.

People making documents on laptops

So, for all of these, make sure to learn about your system's save procedures and auto-save capabilities. In other words, you absolutely should know whether the software you use needs you to manually save your work, or whether it saves everything automatically. And if it saves automatically, you figure out whether you can revert your work. If you are an old-timer and you assume (because you've done this for years) that you can make a whole bunch of experimental changes to a big document and then cancel everything by simply closing the file without saving, you might be unhappily surprised if you find out all your changes were automatically saved with no option to revert.

If you work on a business network, see your computer training coordinator or network manager for guidance. If you are an individual, do some experiments on test documents, so you'll know exactly what you're dealing with when you have a problem.

2. Save your work regularly.

If you have a conventional program that does not save as you type, then get in the habit of saving your document regularly. No matter what you're doing—writing a report, creating a spreadsheet, making a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, or just jotting down your thoughts—after you have typed the first sentence or made the first slide, save your document. Look for the Save icon Save / Floppy Disk Icon or find Save in your program's menu. Figure out what folder to put your document in, assign it a meaningful name, and save it.

Then, as long as you're working on it, click the Save button every time you pause in your work, every time you have had a particularly luminous thought that you skillfully turned into exquisite prose, and then every few minutes anyway for good measure. In most programs, you don't even need to move your hands from the keyboard; you can use Ctrl+S (Microsoft Windows) or Apple command key logo+S (iMac and MacBook) to save.

Each time you save, the saved file is updated to match what's on your screen.

There is no reason not to do this as much as you can; it won't hurt your computer to save your file too many times. However, in some cases, if your computer is slow, the delay caused by saving your document might interfere with your rivulets of thought. If that is the case, you should address the issue of your computer's slowness. For example, if you are accessing files over a slow remote network link, see your network administrator about improving performance.

3. Don't use an existing document as a template.

Illustration of a document template

Many people have a habit of opening an existing document that's in the format they like, replacing text, and then saving the new content as a new document. This is bad practice. If it is at all important that you keep the old document as it is, you should realize how easy it is to absent mindedly hit Save after making changes, thereby wiping out the old document.

A better way to use previous documents as templates is to use the template functions supported by most word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs. Look in the help files for your software, or see your business training coordinator or network manager, for guidance on how to create templates that are managed separately from the actual documents you make from them. If you're not going to do that, then at the very least, before you use an existing document as a template, make a copy of it and use the copy.

4. Get a battery backup.

Desktop battery backup device

If you use a desktop computer (as opposed to a laptop or tablet), get a battery backup. This is a device, usually a little smaller than a shoebox, that contains a battery capable of providing power to your computer and monitor for ten minutes or so. If the electricity goes out, the battery instantaneously provides power to your computer. So while it's dark in your room, you'll be sitting there with a glowing screen, your computer humming, and your document still there, giving you time to save your file, shut down your computer, and wait until the power comes back.

Even if the power only dips or goes out for a split second, if you have no battery backup, your computer will shut off, losing all updates in your document since you last saved it. With a battery backup, your computer will stay on as if nothing happened.

5. Don't panic if the network goes down.

If you work on a network—meaning you open and save files that are physically stored on another computer—then you can potentially lose work if the network goes down. You will often first notice this when you try to save your file, and your program says it can't save the file because the "network location is not available" or something similar. When that happens, don't just cancel the save operation and close the program without saving, or your file is gone. The computer will give you an opportunity to save the file somewhere else.

Save As menu in Microsoft Word 2019

To do this, use the "Save As..." function in your program. Pick a location on your computer (since the network is down) such as your Desktop, or your Documents folder. Save the file where you can, and change the name as well to indicate why it's not where it is supposed to be. For example, if you are working on the "January Marketing Report" that is stored on the network, and the network goes down, save it to your Desktop as "January Marketing Report, saved to Desktop". That way, when the network is back up and you are browsing through network folders and your computer's folders trying to find this file and figure out what is the latest copy, you can use this descriptive name, along with the date/time stamp, to determine which file you want to keep. You can then safely move and rename the newer version of your file from your computer to where it is supposed to be on the network.

6. Avoid using offline functionality or syncing for web-based applications.

Web-based word processing and spreadsheets, such as G Suite apps (Google Docs) or Microsoft Office online, work directly on your documents stored on the providers' servers. These and similar systems support saving a web-based document locally to your computer, but may require installing software, such as a browser extension, that lets your browser save files to the internal storage of your computer or mobile device. Mobile apps, and Chrome OS on the Chromebook, generally have this function enabled already.

These systems also come with separate applications to let you sync documents from your computer or laptop to the online storage space (Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, in this example, respectively), so you can edit a copy of your documents, stored on your computer, using full-featured desktop applications (most commonly Microsoft Word and Excel) rather than the scaled-down editors that run within your web browser. But these can be fraught with danger. As your computer disconnects and connects to the Internet, the sync application makes decisions as to how it will reconcile updates to your documents that you made offline, or you or someone else made through a browser. Most of the time, it works flawlessly, but we have seen cases where a glitch in its function causes data loss. For example, a user edited a document while not connected to the Internet, and found that once he connected again, the updated document on his computer was inexplicably replaced with the older web-based copy, causing all this work to be lost.

J.D. Fox Micro wishes you the best of luck in never losing data. But, if you follow the tips above and develop good habits, you will see that luck is barely a factor!