Why do the changes I’ve made to a document that was emailed to me disappear?

Due to complexity of attachments in emails, changes you've made to a document that was emailed to you can disappear.

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Why do the changes I’ve made to a document that was emailed to me disappear?

Naturally there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong and disappear, but dealing with documents that have been emailed to you as an attachment adds another small layer of complexity.

You may think you’re just editing a document, but you’re also editing the email that it came in. And that’s where things can get confusing.

For the record, I’ll be referring to Outlook. This discussion applies mostly to email programs like Outlook and Outlook Express, but the principals may apply to other email programs as well. Similarly, I’ll be using Microsoft Word and a word processing document as the example attachment, but the concepts apply regardless of the type of document attached.

An attachment is nothing more than a specially formatted part of an email message. Outlook knows that it’s special, so it shows as an attachment icon rather than the illegible specially coded mess that attachments are actually stored as.

MailboxesWhen you open an attachment, say by double clicking on its icon, Outlook decodes the attachment from the email and writes it to a temporary location. Then a program such as Word is used to view or edit the temporary copy.

Note the repeated use of the word “temporary”. When you close Word, the temporary file is deleted by Outlook. The original remains encoded within the email, but the temporary copy that you were actually viewing is gone.

So, what if you made changes to the document you were viewing?

First, you’ll have to save the changes to the temporary copy in Word. If  you make a change and then go to close Word, then it will first ask you if  you want to save the changes you’ve made.

As I said earlier, when you close the attachment, the temporary file you were looking at is deleted. However, Outlook will notice that the document has been changed. Before deleting the temporary file, it will update the attachment within the open email message.

Lastly, when you go to close that email message, Outlook will ask you “Do you want to save changes?”. This can be confusing, because to all outward appearances the email message hasn’t changed. But in fact it has, because you made changes to the attachment that is part of the message. If you don’t save changes at this point, those changes to the attachment will be lost.

What if the message wasn’t open? Well, it had to be open in order to open the attachment in Word. If you close the message before you close Word you lose the possibility of updating the attachment in the message. Outlook will usually warn you if you’re about to do this.

The good news is that if you’ve closed the message and Outlook can’t  update it, it also doesn’t know that it needs to delete the temporary file when Word closes. So you may be still able to find the document by searching in your temporary folders.

Finally, my recommendation is actually very simple: avoid all this. Just don’t do it that way.

Instead, if you need to edit a document that has arrived as an attachment, use “Save Attachment” to save it to disk first. Put it in “My Documents” or some other place that you’ll remember. Edit it to your heart’s content without worrying about Outlook, and open messages and/or temporary files. Then, when you need to send it to someone else or reply to the person that sent it in the first place, just attach your new copy of the document to your message.

There are 20 comments:

  1. Helder Reply

    Hi Leo,

    Thanks for your thorough explanation. I just had a row with our IT guys over this issue. Your email explains in a lot more detail why the changed attachment doesn’t get saved, but I was wondering if there is anything that can be done in the meantime. Is there any little programme that can be run to disable the “save” option on excel attachments so that you are forced to use “save as” or can you some how set Outlook up so that it auto saves documents into a designated non-temporary folder. It drives me nuts that everyone passively explains why the problem exists and no one knows of a way to fix it… everyone i know in every company i’ve worked in has lost large ammounts of data in this way, more than once. It’s just so counter-intuitive the way it works now.

  2. David Reply

    Yes, I understand it. But where the document is temporarily stored? When I open the file agian it has the (1) attached at end. If I open it third time it has (2) attached. It means the document exists somewhere, but where? I made changes, saved, closed, returned to Outlook, pressed Reply, the message close without asking a thing, and I discovered I have not given an option to save the document at any point. Word recent documents does not list it, Search does not discover any document with similar name on whole drive C:. And Outlook Aplication data folder also does not contain any usable file.

  3. Donald Reply

    Just another ******* example of how **** and ill- thought through word and outlook is. I have just lost all my edits of a whole ****** afternoon due to this problem.

    **** *** Microsoft.

  4. Robert Reply

    It would be helpful if you gave suggestions on how to search the temporary files.

  5. Matt Reply

    browse to:
    C:Documents and Settings%username%Local Settings

    Search the ‘temporary internet files’ folder for the extention of your file.
    EG: you have been working on a powerpoint file: search for: *.ppt

  6. Paulo Nunes Reply

    It’s easy to go into this trap if you edit the attachement in the reading pane (without opening the message). This way Outlook won’t notice the changes in the attachement and you lost them. Worst is if the attachement is another e-mail message. I could not find the corresponding temporary file, or it was blocked by Outlook and deleted when I exited Outlook.

  7. Francesco Reply

    I had the same problem with a word attachment
    this was what I did
    FROM DOS
    1)cd C:Documents and Settings%username%Local Settings
    2)dir /A /S *.doc
    3)copy “filename.doc” c:
    4)enjoy!!!

  8. Vicki Berenson Reply

    Francesco, you are a lifesaver! This worked – except that I had to change the directory to Temporary Internet Files and then the Outlook folder (OLKxx). I never knew you could recover modified Outlook attachments. Strange that they don’t show up in Windows Explorer but appear in the DOS file list. Thank you so much!

  9. Anna Reply

    I never though it would ever happened to me. i opened word document from my e-mail to finish the paper I was working on and closed it without saving in on my hard drive. I was devasted, 6 hours of work went waste! I was trying to locate it by all means possible, searched tepm files, word recovery files and couldn’t find it. I downloaded couple of free document recovery programs but it didn’t help.I followed the instructions posted by Francesco, found the file in DOS list, but it didn’t copy. Then i decided to purchase EASEUS Data Recovery and it found and restored my lost data! So happy!

  10. Craig Reply

    Does anyone know Microsofts “Official” stance on this…is this a feature or a bug? I’ve got users who seem to operate this way on a regular basis and this behavior causes them difficulty. I understand there’s a “don’t do it that way” work around but was wondering what the official response was.

    I don’t know that there’s an official position. However I can say that everything is operating as expected and by design. It’s more a matter of understanding how documents are being handled in email that sometimes confuses people.

    - Leo
    13-May-2009
  11. Jerry Rawson Reply

    If users are aware of the pitfalls of editing an email attachment without saving it to disk, then don’t cry me a river.
    You were aware of the pitfalls of editing an attachment inside a email but choose not to practice safe computing habits.
    Sort of like repeating hitting your thumb with a hammer.
    If it hurts, practice your hammering skills.
    Maybe users should purhase I.D.10.T insurance.

  12. Zeljka Reply

    This is great!
    I made changes in the attachement of the e-mail, forgetting that I did not save it to computer, but at least I clicked save several times during work. When I realised that, after I just closed the document, I felt so bad because I’ve been working on it a few hours.

    Downloading the Handy Recovery 4.0 solved all my problems so easy that I still can not believe. Just read the tips at the beginning and you will need a few minutes to get the file you need. And the best thing is filter which helps you to find it even by name.

  13. Cathy mertl Reply

    I spent half a day editing a brochure under very tight deadlines when I discovered all of my edits disappeared because I had edited the document that was attached to email. In an absolute, utter panic, I searched online for a solution and ended up on this (Ask-Leo) page. You are my saviour, Leo! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I found the doc in my temp directory. Phew!

  14. Rhonda Reply

    This feature quit working for a couple of users in our company. they are no longer able to save the attachment with edits. It opens as Read Only. I can’t duplicate it on my PC. Any idea how to turn it back on?

    Not offhand – could be several things. But they can always save a copy to a location of their own choice which would read/write.

    Leo
    01-Oct-2009

  15. Tan C Reply

    Hi Ronda, the attachements are opening as Read-Only because they are opened from the Preview Pane. If you double-click on the email and then open the docs, you can make changes to them.

  16. Eric Li Reply

    In my case for a Windows XP PC, I needed to goto ….Local SettingsTemporary Internet FilesContent.Outlook folder to find the lost updated spreadsheet attachment

  17. Chris Reply

    ROAR!!!! all hail to Francesco the greatest exponent of document recovery ever to visit the internet. Two days of painstaking work I ploughed into a word document not realizing I had originally opened it from an email attachment. When it vanished this evening I was ready to turn my back on the IT game and move into a monastery. I don’t understand the recovery method you outlined but when it worked for me just now I literally burst my guts open with relief

  18. myron Reply

    Outlook Express DOES NOT ASK Me if i want to save changes after i have edited an “attachment”..It just closes and, of course, the changes disappear.

    I clicked forward and opened the attachment to make a change and saved it as a draft.. I reopened the draft and attachment..and..oops..no changes saved in the attachment!!

    How come??

  19. Johann Reply

    Don’t be daft myron. Stop opening attachments inside outlook express. Save them to my documents first THEN edit them. If you do the same thing over and over but expect a different result…

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