Frequent Workbook Recovery Prompts

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated August 29, 2020)
This tip applies to Excel 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Excel in Microsoft 365


Dorrie has a number of workbooks that repeatedly exhibit the same problem. When she opens a workbook, she gets the following error message: "Excel found unreadable content in [your workbook]. Do you want to recover the contents of this workbook?" Dorrie clicks "Yes" and none of the content is actually affected. The only things that are affected are tab colors and print settings. This frequent occurrence is extremely frustrating, so Dorrie is wondering why Excel would toy with her in this way.

Chances are good that Excel doesn't think it is toying with you. (Actually, Excel doesn't think at all, but you get the idea.) The message you are seeing is due to some set of conditions being met that cause Excel to treat the workbook as if it is corrupt in some way. And, in fact, it could be corrupt in some small way that doesn't hinder regular use, but only comes into play when opening the workbook.

That may lead to the question as to why this is happening with multiple workbooks. The most likely scenario is that those workbooks all come from a common source. Perhaps they all started as copies of an original problem workbook on your system. Or, perhaps, they are from a coworker that copied them from a problem workbook on his system. It is possible that they are created by exporting from a different program and that program isn't creating workbooks quite right.

Regardless of the reason why it is happening with a good number of workbooks, the fact that it isn't happening with all workbooks indicates that the problem is with the workbooks themselves, not with the Excel program. Unfortunately, the solution is not very simple. You can, if you desire, start "unpacking" the XML used to store a workbook and poke around until you find which setting is wrong. Here's the account of one such adventure in troubleshooting:

https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/office/forum/office_
2010-excel/excel-corruption-excel-found-unreadable-content/
d8f3dcef-1a43-4044-a31a-f9aa24c99e46?auth=1

That's a very long URL, so I split it across three lines for readability. You'll want to make sure you get it all into your browser so you can see the proper page. Once there, you can see what the person needed to go through in order to track down and fix the problem.

Notice, as well, that the solution recounted at the website is for a problem that doesn't exactly match Dorrie's problem, but simply parallels it. The solution is provided so you can understand what is involved in tracking down problems of this type.

Quite honestly, if your workbooks aren't that complex, you may be better served to simply recreate them. Don't copy entire worksheets from one workbook to another; that only increases the likelihood of transferring the problem. You'll want to actually recreate the workbook, from scratch, so that you end up with a workbook that is as "clean" as possible.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (9945) applies to Microsoft Excel 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Excel in Microsoft 365.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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