How can I make Word save or back up my document automatically?

Article contributed by Suzanne S. Barnhill

For an updated version of this article, see Word’s Save Options.

You can’t! You may have heard that Word can automatically save your document at specified intervals or create a backup copy for security. Do not believe this! If you look at the Save tab of Tools | Options, you will see several check boxes whose state is very important to your document security, but none of the options will protect you from your own imprudence, laziness, or folly!

This article will discuss some of the more often misunderstood options in the Save Options dialog (shown below: some of the options on the dialog vary between Word versions, but the ones discussed here are present in all versions).

This figure shows the Save tab of the Options dialog as seen in Word 2003 and earlier; in Word 2007, these options are divided between Office Button | Word Options | Save and Office Button | Word Options | Advanced: Save

Allow fast saves

Although this is the second option, we’ll tackle it first because (a) in Word 97 and earlier it is checked by default (which it should not be), and (b) it is one of the top three causes of document corruption (the others are Master Documents and saving directly to a floppy).

What it does

The theory of Fast Saves is explained in several Microsoft Knowledge Base articles, the most recent of which is WD2002: Frequently Asked Questions About “Allow Fast Saves.” According to this article, “If you turn on the Allow fast saves feature, Word appends any changes to the end of the document file rather than re-writing the entire file. The Allow fast saves feature thus takes less time than a full save of the document. The difference in time is only noticeable when you are working on very large documents.”

What it doesn’t do

Well, it doesn’t save noticeably faster, as Microsoft admits. Moreover, you can imagine the possibilities for corruption when Word keeps tacking edits onto the end of your document, intending to straighten the whole mess out later when you do a full save. Meanwhile, your file size keeps getting larger and larger. You can see why we advise you to turn this option off!

Note: Partly because of its potential for causing corruption but largely because it was no longer needed, this option has been removed from Word 2007.

Always create backup copy

You can’t enable this option without disabling fast saves; they are mutually exclusive. And we do advise you to enable it.

What it does

When you have this option enabled, Word retains the previous version of your document every time you save it. Obviously, the first time you save, there is no previous version, but on the second save, Word will create a “Backup of <Filename>.wbk” file that is the first version you saved. When you save again, your <Filename>.doc will be the third version, and Word will keep the second as a backup. This can be a lifesaver in any of a number of situations where you do something rash or stupid.

You’ll need to open Windows Explorer from time to time, open your Word document folders, and clear out all the .wbk files, which do tend to accumulate (to facilitate selecting them, sort by file type). If your hard drive space is limited, you may choose not to enable this option, but it’s saved my bacon just often enough to make it worth the effort of an occasional clear-out.

What it doesn’t do

“Backup” is probably a misnomer for the .wbk file. “Fallback” would be a better term. It does not take the place of saving duplicate copies on removable media (floppies, CDs, tape drive, etc.) because (a) the backup file is saved in the same folder with the document itself (and continually overwrites the previous backup file), and (b) it’s not even the most recent version.

Allow background saves

Word’s use of “background” in this context is sometimes misleading, especially in the Print Options dialog, where users often think that “background printing” means printing the graphic background they’ve applied to the page. In both cases, however, Word is talking about performing a task “in the background.” That is, it can go about its business while you continue working. If you didn’t allow background saves, you’d have to wait till Word finished saving before you could continue typing or editing. In most cases, this wouldn’t be a noticeable delay, but unless you experience some problem with background saving, you should leave this option enabled. The important thing to understand, however, is that enabling this option doesn’t mean that Word will save “automatically”; Word does not save your document unless you tell it to, either by pressing Ctrl+S or by using the Save button on the Standard toolbar or the Save item on the File menu.

Save AutoRecover info

This is perhaps the most misunderstood option in the whole dialog. Many users learn too late, to their deep chagrin, that this is not an AutoSave option. Yes, AutoRecovery can be very useful in the right circumstances, but it is not a substitute for regular manual saves.

What it does

When you have AutoRecovery enabled, Word saves an “AutoRecovery save of <Filename>.asd” file at the interval you specify. These files are saved in the folder specified for AutoRecover files on the File Locations tab of Tools | Options (Office Button | Word Options | Save in Word 2007). If something untoward happens while you are working in Word—that is, if Word “has encountered a problem and needs to close” (hangs), the system crashes, or the power blinks—the next time you start Word you will be presented with the AutoRecovery files (if any) that had been saved at the time of the event. If the timestamp on one of these is later than your last manual save, you have the option of saving it as your document.

What it doesn’t do

AutoRecovery is not a substitute for saving manually. If you haven’t been working long enough for an AutoRecovery file to be created when the unthinkable happens, there will be no .asd file. Moreover, when you close a document or quit Word, all the .asd files are deleted. If you have not saved the document, it is gone.

Our advice has always been to “save early and save often.” Save and name the document within the first five to fifteen minutes of working on it and at five- to fifteen-minute intervals thereafter. Only you can judge how much work you’re willing to recreate if necessary, but if you get in the habit of pressing Ctrl+S every time your hands pause on the keyboard, you will rarely lose much.

One caveat: Word does create temp files while you’re working, and it creates an additional one each time you save. If your hard drive is cramped or your system resources limited, you will want to close and reopen the document periodically to flush out these temp files.

Some of the temp files (especially if you've been pasting or editing graphics or embedded objects) hang around until you quit Word, so when working on long documents, you would be well advised to close and reopen Word periodically as well, especially if your machine starts to slow down noticeably.

Above all, if Word does slow down noticeably or start to behave strangely in any way, don't save your document at that stage, as you're likely to corrupt it if you do. Instead, paste your most recent changes into WordPad and save them there under a new filename; then quit and restart Word; and if Word is now behaving normally, paste the changes from your WordPad document back into your Word document.

Prompt to save Normal template

This option is not enabled by default, but in our opinion, it should be. Sometimes “helpful” advisors will suggest that you disable it if you get a prompt to save every time you quit Word. This has been compared to advising you to take the battery out of your smoke detector because it buzzes when there’s smoke in the room. Disabling this option does not prevent Word from saving; it just allows it to do so without asking your permission. You want to know when something or someone is trying to make changes to; if you made the changes intentionally, fine; if you didn’t, you’ll want to investigate to find out what is causing Word to think changes have been made. If you get a prompt to save every time you close Word, see either this article for Word 2003 or this article for Word 2007 or Word 2010.

Note: I have observed that the switch from Standard to Daylight-Saving time (or vice versa) always occasions a prompt to save the Normal template. This prompt will be repeated until you finally break down and acquiesce. It seems harmless, so you might as well accept on the first day after the time change.

The closest thing to AutoSave

I’ve said that there is no AutoSave feature in Word. But you can accomplish the next best thing by downloading the Automatically save Word documents add-in from Graham Mayor’s site. According to Graham, “This add-in will remind you to save your work at intervals, and can also be configured to automatically save the document.” I personally would find it very distracting to have reminders popping up when I am trying to concentrate and downright scary to have Word saving my document without my permission (and it may also slow Word down a little); but if you need help to get into the habit of saving regularly as you work, perhaps this add-in is just what you need.