What is Document Corruption?

July 1, 2018 by Laurie Danford

Not to be confused with incorrect formatting (which can be annoying but not critical), corruption in a document requires corrective action and can be recognized with any of the following symptoms:

  • Constant re-paging.
  • Incorrect document layout and formatting and screen distortion.
  • Unreadable characters on the screen, wrong icons and pictures.
  • Hangs or crashes.

So what causes document corruption?

Poor formatting, or very old and constantly re-used documents that have not been converted to .docx. Especially documents converted from WordPerfect, or in the era of Printer specific fonts (before Windows True Type and Clear Type font sets shipped with Windows applications).

Low computer resources. If you notice Word start to slow down noticeably it’s always best to quit and restart Word immediately; and close any applications that are open. Other signs that you are low on resources: fonts suddenly not displaying properly; the wrong application icons appearing on your Desktop or in Windows Explorer (e.g. Word’s icon appearing where Excel’s should be). If you get these symptoms, restart Windows immediately.

A corrupt printer driver. This can corrupt memory. In turn, your document can be impacted. Symptoms: Word often crashes when printing. Cure: reinstall the driver.

Corrupt Word data keys in Windows registry. Printing problems in Word may also be caused by a corrupted Word data key in the Windows registry. If this is the case, you must delete the data key. When you restart Word, Word automatically re-creates the Word Data key. (Important: After you delete the Word Data key, some settings in Word are reset to their default settings.)

A corrupt template. A bad template will corrupt any new documents based on it. The default template in Word is Normal.dotm, which is used for every new “blank” document you create. (Cure: Delete the normal.dotm and open Word. It will re-create a new clean copy on open. (Important: Styles, page and font customizations, autocorrect, and autotext will be lost. For this reason, keep a backup of Normal.dotm with customizations.)

List numbering using the Define new Multilevel list dialog. This is likely to lead to corruption at some point, due to cross linking of outlines/ list templates). Cure: Use an outline which links every level of the outline to Heading 1 through Heading 9 unique paragraph styles.

Where are corruptions stored?

Corruptions are usually, but not always, stored in Section Breaks. The final paragraph mark in a document contains a hidden Section Break, so in a single-section document, corruptions are often stored in the final paragraph mark. Corruptions can also be stored in any paragraph mark in a document; or in an end-of-cell or end-of-row marker within a table.

What can I do to avoid document corruption?

  1. All Word documents are NOT the same. The latest .docx save format (available after Word 2007) is FAR MORE STABLE. As a first step, always up-convert your documents, if they are in the .DOC format. When you do the upconvert, be aware that some documents may shift formatting of tables or pagination. For this reason, it is a good idea to save as new document or new version and preserve the original. If pagination does change, do the upconvert a second time (from the original) with compatibility set to a prior version of Word.
  2. If you did not create the document, INSPECT it before you edit! Under the surface, formatting and improper edits may hurt you. Look to see if there are styles, field codes, cross references, content controls. Sometimes a good document becomes bad with many edits. If you’d like to start fresh and re-apply styles: CONTROL A, CONTROL Q, CONTROL SPACE will strip away all the layers of garbage formatting, so you can apply clean, consistent styles.
  3. Pay attention to content! Become a master of your content. Gather standard boilerplate, save as a template, or in a clause library / clause bank like the LegalBar Assemble-It clause library. Or, use native Word AutoText or Quick Part (including Cover Page, Header, and Footer galleries).
  4. Stay current with Microsoft Windows updates and Microsoft Office updates.

Fixing Document Corruption

Use this quick solution: Select the contents of the document, excluding the last paragraph mark. Paste into a new, blank document. (The formatting for the entire document is contained in the last paragraph mark and so corruption can often be left behind by not copying it.)

Microsoft Resources for Document Troubleshooting

How to troubleshoot damaged documents in Word

Open a document after a file corruption error

How to troubleshoot printing problems in Word


Laurie DanfordLaurie Danford
Director of Software Development, BEC Legal Systems

Published: July 9, 2018