tech tips for writers / writers tips

Lost Digital File? Here’s How to Find it

How to find files your cloud ate

With so much of writing now digital, the days of “the dog ate my novel” are gone. It’s simple to track, isn’t it? It’s either in My Documents or the cloud.

Maybe. Should be but the new problems are “Someone stole/hacked it” or “The cloud ate it”. Every adult I know (myself included) has lost a critical, time-sucking digital file. It was saved wrong or got corrupted or simply vanished. The reason doesn’t matter. All that matters is that a week’s worth of work is no longer where it should be; now it’s forever-gone.

There’s a learning curve to knowing where to save files, how to do that correctly, and then ultimately how to retrieve them. It can be especially complicated when you use different digital devices or if you use an online webtool that saves work to their server (like Canva).

can't find my file

There is a pretty effective starting place when you can’t find a file:

  • Go to the digital device’s general Search field. This will find the file if it’s on that digital device or any drive connected to it.
  • Search for the exact name or whatever part of the name you know. 
  • If you don’t know the file name but do know the file extension (maybe it was created in Google Docs or Excel), search for that using the general search term: *.[extension]. 

When you can’t find a project, here are six questions to ask:

Where did you save it?

Most programs have a default location where files are saved. This may be preset or it may be the system default.

Did you ‘save” or “save-as”?save or save as

“Save” puts the file in the same spot it was opened. It takes about half a second to find it. “Save-as” changes the location where it’s saved or the name under which it’s saved.

What’s the file name?

Some people don’t know the file name. If you make a habit of appending the date when saving files, that helps.

When did you create the file?

Many people who can’t remember where a file was saved or by what name can pin down the date they created it based on stuff they were doing at the same time. The steps for finding a file by date created will differ depending upon the operating system but all are pretty similar. Here’s how it works in Windows:

  • Open the Windows File Explorer.
  • In the search box (or simply push Ctrl+F), type datemodified.
  • A calendar will appear; select the date for when you believe the file was created.
  • If it’s not in the drive you selected, reselect to search another drive.

If you don’t remember what date you created the file, start in the digital device’s “Recent” folder. This is found not only in the digital device being used but in many programs (like Office).

Here’s one more way to search by date created: If you’re on a PC, click Cortana on the taskbar and a list of recent activities shows up under ‘Pick up where you left off’. This includes the most recently saved files.

Did you delete it?

Sometimes, you delete the file by accident. It’s always worth checking the trash. If it’s in there, it’s easy to restore.

What digital device were you using?

Were you using your laptop? Desktop? iPad? Smartphone? You may have saved the file to that device’s local drive.


I’d love to hear what you do when your files disappear.

More on tech problem solving:

5 Ways to Personalize Wallpaper on 3 Digital Devices

Doc Saved Over? Try This

How to Undelete with 2 Keystrokes

Cover Your Webcam!

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and Born in a Treacherous Timefirst in the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Survival of the Fittest, Spring 2019, first in the Crossroads Trilogy. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning

65 thoughts on “Lost Digital File? Here’s How to Find it

  1. Thanks for this. I have a bad habit of moving files around and then losing track of where there were last so there’s a good chance I’ll need this sometime.


    • Isn’t that the truth! I have another trick I use with my students. Sometimes, the Word doc they’ve spent hours on disappears off the page (yeah, we all know how that happens). I can go into Revisions and reinstate an earlier version. I am such a boss that day! With super powers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great insight and suggestions on how to track down a digital file. I recently re-discovered my trash file and all the nuggets of past drafts there. Save vs Save As is probably my lifelong battle to recall which I chose for my most recent WIP draft. Thank you for compiling these here and reminding me that saving in a consistent location is a must!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is really useful! I save to a flash drive and a backup drive on my computer after every writing session, so at least I won’t lose everything. A good friend of mine also emails her daily words to herself. Gone are the days when only a flood or fire threatened our manuscripts!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I had a bout with Dropbox. My computer restarted (Thanks, Microsoft) and my Scrivener (set up to back up all its docs on Dropbox) was open to 65K story I was working on.

    When I restarted I didn’t have access anymore. 65K gone. It took weeks to find the simple answer. All I had to do was look in my Scrivener back-files on my computer. It was all there.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jacqui,

    I’ve misplaced digital files on my computer a million times. Thankfully, it doesn’t take weeks to locate unless it was a long time ago that I created it and did not properly put it where I intended it to be. Soon I will begin archiving photos to iCloud after learning Flickr’s storage policy has changed. Which is a huge bummer! I spent a lot of time getting my files on there and now 2T free storage is going away. The cost is more expensive than iCloud for what I need so I will make sure to remove my photos from their server before they do. Thanks for sharing these tips. They are a good help!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What great advice!
    This happened to me with a major apple operating system update. I panicked! It simply took everything on my hard drive and reorganized it into cloud! I couldn’t believe it. Sigh. At least I found everything. Happy Hop Day!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ever since many years ago, when my university essay corrupted a week before the deadline (It turned all my words into random symbols!) I live in fear of losing my files. I drive myself crazy saving things in the wrong place too! Great tips 🙂
    If I lose a document (Open Office) file, I open a new blank document and click the arrow next to the open a new file button. It lists all the files I recently worked on and where they’re saved 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I had a super special time with four different apple departments this past week. My password for my password-protected notes wasn’t working anymore. They are not retrievable anymore, so I deleted them, had a small mourning period, and moved on. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. What a timely article for me. I searched last night for a file I had written 3 years ago. I had no idea which device I saved it on, so I had to try each laptop.. (I never used the cloud or dropbox 3 years ago.) And I didn’t want to go through every stick from 3 years ago. Of course, I had no idea what I named the file, but it was about growing tomatoes, so I typed in tomatoes in the search box of the laptop and I found it! About the cloud…is that supposed to be more secure than your own laptop? What if the bad guy gets the keys to the cloud and then access to the whole world’s files? Wait. I think a new novel is appearing in this long comment! Thanks for the info, Jacqui. Very helpful.

    JQ Rose

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good ending to your story, JQ. Glad you found that file. The Cloud is only as secure as the Cloud Tenders and we’ve all seen how that works out. But then again, our own computers aren’t all that safe either. A good solution for that really important stuff is to save it to a flash drive and then “air gap” it from your computer–don’t keep it plugged into the USB port so if your computer is attacked, they don’t find it. Another solution is to turn the Internet off but who wants to do that??


  10. Great tips, Jacqui. When writing, I always save my document to the laptop as well as the cloud. Every second or third time, I’ll save to my flash drive too for extra security. That said, I somehow lost a half day’s work recently. No idea where it went.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thanks, Jacqui.

    I find the Windows interface slow and clunky. I’ve used the Search and Replace program for years. It allows a person to search for files not only by name/type, but also by words contained within the file, and it’s faster than File Explorer.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Such a useful post. Just when I’ve mastered backing up files on a stick etc, I’m given a cloud, something I can’t touch or see, so how am I meant to understand it? This begins to make a little sense now, so thank you for your calm good-sense.

    Liked by 2 people

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