Frequent Workbook Recovery Prompts

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated February 22, 2020)


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:

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 Office 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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What is 4 + 0?

2017-05-15 08:32:18

Dennis Costello

What I always find frustrating is when Excel corrects a corruption, but there seems to be no way to discover what it did. It's been a while since this happened to me so I don't recall the exact phrase, but the most you ever seem to get is something along the lines of "errors corrected - click here to see the log file" - and the log file says the exact same thing. It would be nice to know at least which cells were affected, and ideally what values, attributes, and/or properties of cells or other objects were cleaned up.

2015-12-21 14:45:05


Why spend hours reviewing xml or vba. Save the workbook as a new workbook; close it; open it. -Or, copy your spreadsheets to a new notebook; close it; open it. If the error does not occur, then problem solved. If the message occurs, then you know it is not the spreadsheets themselves.

2015-12-20 11:20:21

Oscar Gomez-Villa

This problema has happened to me once or twice, without further consequences. Excel finally opened the suspected workbook and nothing else happened.

2015-12-19 13:41:24


Petros: I agree, why bother. 99.4% of the time Excel/VBA corruption is impossible to find.
A workbook small enough to disassemble is small enough to start all over with a new workbook.
AND, if you have a large workbook, full of VBA code, it is a virtual impossibility to take things apart and feel out errors.
Errors may occur as the file is loaded, after loaded, and in the process of multiple workbook links. None of the error messages I have received have been of ANY value.

2015-12-19 11:04:49


Why should I bother to learn about corruption in Excel? If you an experienced Excel user or developer, sooner of later, you will try to open a workbook that has been corrupted. Learn to identify file corruption and avoid getting confused by the odd warnings

2015-12-19 07:54:39


Allen, just a remark on the use of long URLs: You could consider to let generate a short but meaningful URL.

2015-12-19 07:07:32

Teresa McLean

I try to do a spreadsheet but do not know how to put the top date headings and columns to complete weekly.

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