You might already have OneNote, but you might have never used it. Here's how to use it to organise your minutes, memos and more.
Despite OneNote's inclusion in most recent editions of Office, few of us have ever opened it, or even acquired a clear idea of what it does.
That’s a shame: although OneNote isn’t as useful as Word or Excel, it’s a powerful application that can be a great help with making and organising notes of any type.
In this context, that might mean memos from meetings, research notes, or any other informal, open-ended collection of information.
OneNote goes beyond the capabilities of the traditional notepad, enabling you to include all sorts of media in your notes (including video and audio content), organise and reorder the contents, and even collaborate with others.
Do I already have OneNote?
OneNote has been available as a standalone product since 2003, but you may already have it as part of the Microsoft Office suite.
It was first included in Office 2007, as part of the Home & Student, Ultimate and Enterprise editions; in Office 2010, it became one of the core applications, featuring in all but the Starter and Personal editions of the suite.
In the latest Office 2013 suite, it’s included in every edition. That includes Office RT, the cut-down Office suite that runs on ARM-based Windows RT hardware, so your notes can be synced and accessed from a Windows 8 tablet.
How notes are organised
If you’ve previously used a word processor as a note-taking tool, OneNote’s way of arranging things may take a little getting used to. Rather than using a flat, linear structure, it arranges things hierarchically, effectively storing a whole database of structured information.
Each OneNote document is called a “notebook”; notebooks subdivide into sections, and each section can contain any number of pages, on which your actual content is stored. When you open OneNote, you’ll see a stack of available notebooks displayed down the left-hand side of the screen (or in a dropdown menu if you’re using Office 2013); sections within the current notebook appear as tabs along the top of the main window, and pages within the current section are shown at the right.
If you like to keep things simple, there’s nothing preventing you from keeping all your notes in a single notebook – or even in a single section, with different pages relating to different projects.
However, OneNote’s collaborative features (which we’ll discuss below) operate at the notebook level, so if you keep all your notes in one notebook, you’ll either have to share them all with your colleagues, or keep them all private. Splitting things up enables you to take finer control of who can see and edit what.
There’s no harm in starting out with a single page, though; you can easily reorganise sections into separate notebooks at a later date. To do this, right-click on the section’s heading tab and you’ll see the option to “Move or Copy...”, along with various other organisational commands.
Another way in which OneNote notebooks differ from word-processing documents is that you don’t need to actively hit “Save” to update the version stored on disk. OneNote automatically stores changes as they’re made, so as soon as your meeting is finished you can close the application, shut your laptop and be on your way without worrying about saving your latest notes.
When you launch OneNote for the first time, a sample notebook opens, showcasing the various ways you can take notes. The simplest of these is by simply clicking somewhere on the page and typing some text. OneNote doesn’t, by default, constrain you to a virtual A4 space: you can place text anywhere you want and the page will simply extend to accommodate it. The text you type appears in a box that automatically grows to the required size, wrapping when your row of text becomes too long.
You can resize this box by dragging from the right-hand side, or move the text around within the box by dragging the four-arrowed anchor tag that appears when you hover over the text. The formatting of your text can be adjusted, just as in Word, via the formatting tools under the Home tab, or by right-clicking and using the floating formatting palette.
You can also take notes in table form. To do this, click and type in a value for the first cell, then press Tab: a new column appears and your cursor jumps into it. Press the Return key and a new row is automatically created. You can’t perform mathematical operations within tables created in this way, but they can be pasted directly into Excel for further calculation and analysis. In OneNote 2013, it’s also possible to insert an existing or new Excel table directly onto the page, via the new spreadsheet icon under the Insert tab.
Finding and tagging notes
A big advantage of computerised notes over pen and paper is that they’re searchable. There’s no need to pore over page after page of scrawled notes: type a word or phrase into the search box at the upper right of the screen and you’ll see an instant list of all occurrences. Press Ctrl+F to search the current page, or Ctrl+E to search all notebooks. You can change the scope of the Ctrl+E search – to search only the current section, or only the current notebook – by clicking the dropdown arrow.
Another way to keep track of connected pieces of text and other elements is by using tags. In the floating formatting palette, you’ll see an icon that looks like a star with a dropdown arrow to its right. Open this dropdown and you’ll see a list of 29 preconfigured tags, including “To Do”, “Question” and “Remember for later”. (In OneNote 2007 and 2010, these tags can also be found in the main contextual menu, under the Tags submenu.) Choose a tag to apply it to the selected page element; you can also easily tag items with the top eight tags by holding down Ctrl and typing the respective number between one and eight.
Now, when you click on Find Tags under the Home tab, a new pane will open at the right of the window showing all tagged elements, sorted by tag. If you want to create your own tags, select Customize Tag from the Tags menu; a dialog opens that lets you add new tags and modify existing ones.
Inserting media and files into a notebook
The notes you take with OneNote needn’t be limited to text and tables. You can drag picture files from an Explorer window, or images from a browser, directly into place, or use the Insert tab to place pictures and links on a page.
You’ll also see options to record audio and video directly onto your laptop, using your device’s default video and audio inputs (or others as selected under File | Options).
If you enter text while recording audio, a “play” icon will appear to the left of each text item when you hover over it, allowing you to listen to the audio recording from the moment at which the note was created. It’s a terrifically efficient way to mark and annotate the important parts of a meeting or lecture.
There are several ways to capture content from other applications. The most direct method is to click on the Screen Clipping button under the Insert tab. This lets you copy a rectangular portion of the screen directly onto the page. If you use Internet Explorer, you’ll also notice a “Send to OneNote” contextual menu item appear when you right-click, which inserts a copy of the current web page directly into your notebook. For those who don’t use IE, there are third-party browser extensions that can bring similar features to Chrome and Firefox.
OneNote also installs a virtual printer driver, which can be used to insert anything that can be printed directly into a OneNote notebook – simply print the document as usual and select “Send to OneNote” from the dropdown printer list. Note that if you use this virtual printer to capture a text document, the text that arrives in OneNote won’t be directly editable. However, OneNote automatically performs optical character recognition (OCR) on imported images, so the text will be searchable – and you can extract the text content from any image by right-clicking on it and selecting “Copy text from picture”, then pasting it into a new textbox.
It’s also possible to “attach” files to a page in their native format, just as you can with an email. An attached file appears as a regular Windows document icon, and you can double-click to open it in the default application, or right-click and select “Insert as Printout” to extract its contents.
Attached files are copied into your notebook, not linked, so if you subsequently update a file on your hard disk, the attached copy will remain unchanged. To open the latest version of the file from your hard disk, right-click on its icon within OneNote and select Open Original.
If you’re accustomed to using a physical pad for note-taking, you’re probably in the habit of starting with a blank slate – and for many purposes that’s fine. However, OneNote has a selection of page templates that can help you to organise your material, and prompt you to fill in information you might otherwise forget to note. These include both academic and business purposes: for example, the Simple Lecture Notes template includes spaces for you to fill in topics and key facts, while Formal Meeting Notes steps you through an entire meeting, with spaces to note the approval of minutes, new business and other recurrent aspects of the meeting process.
Other templates allow you to fit your notes to a given print size, with optional patterns such as lines or grids and different background colours (you can also apply these manually using the Page Setup tools under the View tab).
At the bottom of the template panel, you’ll see the option to choose a default template for all new pages you create, or save your current page as a template – so you can create ready-made note-taking templates to precisely fit your needs.
Mobile and sharing
Perhaps OneNote’s most useful function is its ability to keep your notes synchronised across devices, so you can have up-to-date information wherever you’re working. In a company, this can be achieved using a SharePoint server, or via Microsoft’s SkyDrive service. In Office 2013, SkyDrive is used automatically, so you can move back and forth between systems without having to explicitly configure syncing options.
You can do this in OneNote 2010, too, as long as you’ve installed the SkyDrive syncing update that was rolled out via Microsoft Update in 2011. (If you haven’t, you can install it by searching for and installing Microsoft updates KB2553181, KB2553455, KB2553310 and KB2553290.)
Once the feature is installed, you can access it by clicking on the Share tab and selecting Share This Notebook. You’ll see the option to sign in to your SkyDrive, after which your notebooks will be available on every OneNote system you use, provided you’re signed into SkyDrive. Syncing happens in the background: you can force an immediate synchronisation by pressing Shift+F9.
You can access your synced notes from mobile devices, too, courtesy of Microsoft’s free dedicated apps. Android users can search Google Play for “OneNote Mobile”, while iOS users should search the App Store for “Microsoft OneNote”. These mobile apps don’t support all the layout features of the main application, but they allow you to read and edit existing notes, and create new ones on the move, up to a limit of 500 pages (unlimited access can be unlocked for a one-off payment of $5.49). Users of Windows Phone 7 and 8 can access and edit unlimited notes via the integrated OneNote Mobile app.
Synced notebooks can also be shared with other people. Just click on Share This Notebook under the Share tab (or go to File | Share) and click the Share Notebook button at the very bottom of the pane. This makes your notebook available to anyone who has access to the notebook’s SkyDrive location, and you’ll be given a link you can email to your colleagues to enable them to open it directly.
OneNote isn’t the most sophisticated multi-user system, but it isn’t hard to keep things in order. By default, notes are tagged with the name of the person who created them, and the Share tab offers various management tools so you can see what’s changed since you last updated the notebook. The Page Versions dropdown lets you compare the latest version of a page with an earlier one, and optionally restore the older version.
Drawing and handwriting
Sometimes, while taking notes, you just want to grab a pen and draw a line between two things, circle an important point, or scribble in the margin. The tools in OneNote’s Draw tab let you do all this within your virtual notebook. Along the top of the tab you’ll find a selection of pen and highlighter nibs that can be used to make freehand sketches and annotations directly onto the page. You can use a mouse to draw anywhere you like – or, on a touchscreen device, you can simply drag a finger or stylus.
A selection of preconfigured shapes – arrows, rectangles and graph axes – is also available to be placed on the page by dragging. At the end of the tab you’ll find two icons entitled Ink To Text and Ink To Math. The former of these attempts to convert handwriting to regular editable text; a feature that may be useful if you’ve scrawled text notes onto the page, either using the mouse or a touchscreen. If OneNote can’t read your squiggles, this tool may be greyed out, but we’ve found it works well. You don’t need to convert your handwriting to text if you want to search your scribbled notes; when you enter terms into the Search box above the main page area, OneNote automatically searches unconverted handwriting as well as typed text.
The second feature won’t prove useful to everyone, but for the likes of students and engineers it may be a godsend. Ink To Math lets you write mathematical expressions and formulae freehand, then convert them to professional-looking expressions that can be pasted as editable equations into Word, or as graphics into other applications.