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Getting Started with Microsoft OneNote

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This post is part of a series called Going Paperless.
Evernote for Beginners: The Basics of the Most Popular Notebook App
Quick Tip: Digitally Insert Signatures into Documents Using Preview

There's one notebook app that's so much different from every other notebook app, it's almost hard to describe. That app is Microsoft's OneNote. It's a free-form notebook app that was originally designed for Tablet PCs, but has finally grown into a notes platform that runs on every platform and is integrated with the online services you already use. And it's now free and lets you collaborate on notes with anyone, which makes it a very attractive new notes tool.

If you're curious about OneNote and would like to try it out, or need to collaborate with someone on a OneNote notebook and find it confusing, here's everything you need to get started with OneNote. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to create free-form notes, organize everything, automatically save online info, and get more features from the PC version.

OneNote Basics

OneNote
OneNote Online, with the basic features that are in all OneNote apps. 

OneNote looks somewhat like Microsoft Word at first glance, and for good reason: it's part of Microsoft Office, and only recently was released for free with apps for Mac, iOS, and Android in addition to the original PC Office app. There's the familiar Office ribbon on the top of the window with the standard text editing tools, and a list of your notebook sections in tabs across the top of the window on Mac and PC and in the sidebar on the web and mobile. In the middle of the screen, there's a blank canvas for your notes.

You'll need two things to get started with OneNote: a Microsoft Account, and one of the OneNote apps which you can download for free from OneNote.com. Or, just click the Sign In link on the top of OneNote.com, and you can start using OneNote online.

The most important part of OneNote is your notes. Tap the New Page button to start a new page, and you'll see a space at the top to type a title, with today's date and the current time automatically filled in underneath. Type your note title, then tap Return to start typing a note. Or, just click anywhere on the page, and you can start typing there. Unlike almost every other writing app, you don't have to keep your text in one column. Instead, just click anywhere and start typing, and your text will be contained in a small box that you can resize or move around on the page as you want, as you'll see around the list in the picture below.

Notetaking basics in OneNote
OneNote's signature feature is letting you write anywhere you want on your note.

That's free-form notetaking in OneNote. You can now insert a picture and move it around the same way, and resize your text to fit around it the way you want. You can quickly make a list by typing a dash followed by the first thing in your list, and OneNote will make it into a list automatically when you tap return on your keyboard—and then, you can drag the points around and rearrange them to the order you want. Or, you can make a table by typing the first entry, then pressing your tab key and OneNote will turn it into a table.

Your notes could quickly get messy this way, but then, they can also be far more creative than your standard notes in Evernote. There's text formatting tools at the top of the screen, as mentioned before, so you can color and highlight your text, and use heading styles to organize your info and make it stand out. There's also tags, which in OneNote are small emoji-style images that'll appear at the beginning of a line of text where you add them. You can add stars, check boxes, and more to make to-do lists and more.

add tags to OneNote notes
Tags in OneNote

That's the absolute basics of OneNote: freeform notes that can work however you'd like. They're synced via Microsoft's OneDrive service, so you can see your notes on any of your devices. It's a great way to keep up with all of your info in the way that makes the most sense to you.

Organize and Find Your Notes

Many newer notebook apps rely on tags for organization, but in OneNote you'll find the more traditional notebook metaphors at work to help you stay organized. You have as many notebooks as you want, each with sections, pages, and subpages. Notebooks should be used for broad subject areas, and since you can share them with others, they're a great way to divide your notes, say, between work, family, and personal topics—or whatever works for you.

Inside each notebook, you have sections for each topic, which appear as tabs in the top of your window or as side tabs in OneNote online. Click the tabs to switch between notebook sections, or tap the + icon at the end of the list to add a new section. Double-click on a section tap to rename it, or right-click to change the tab's color. And if you want even more organization, you can group tabs into a tab group to organize huge notebooks.

Now, it's down to the pages. Inside each section, you'll have the pages we've already looked at with one page per note. Simply tap Control-N or Command-N to make a new page, or click the Add Page button at the top of your page list. The oldest note will appear on the top, and new ones will be added underneath, but you can drag-and-drop pages into any order you'd like. You can even group pages under one page as a sub-page; select the pages you want, right-click, and select Make Subpage... to do so.

That gives you 5 levels of note hierarchy—notebook, section group, section, page, subpage—to keep everything organized.

Organize notes in OneNote
Sections in OneNote

A good digital notebook should force you to manually locate your notes, though, which is why search is so important. Simply tap Control-F or Command-F or tap the search box in OneNote to start searching through all of your notes. In OneNote online it'll only search inside the notebook and section you currently have open, whereas in the other OneNote apps you can search across all of your notebooks. OneNote will search through your text and OCRed images in your notes, and show ever result in a list that includes the notebook and section names. Click a result to preview it, and the search list will stay open so you can quickly jump to another search result if needed.

Search through notes
OneNote's search makes it easy to find anything in all of your Notebooks

If you accidentally delete an important section from a note, don't worry. You can always view previous versions of all of your notes in OneNote Online and on your PC. Just click the File tab, select Info and then click the Previous Versions button. You'll then see subpages under each of your notebook pages, one for each version that's been saved complete with its date and the author who made the changes. You can then copy data from the note, or restore the full page and override your current version.

Roll-back to previous versions of notes
Roll back to previous versions of any note in OneNote Online

Collaborate with OneNote

One of OneNote's best features is that you can share a full notebook with anyone, and let them see or edit your notes with you. To do that, click the share button in the top corner of your app, or click the File tab and select Share. You can then pick to copy a link that'll let the recipient view your notes, or one that lets them view and edit the notes with you—or you can invite them directly by email.

Share notebooks in OneNote
Share a full notebook with anyone in OneNote, and collaborate on your notes.

Your collaborators can see the notes in OneNote Online, and then can edit them online or open them in their own app. Then, you'll see who wrote and edited what with small author annotations on the sides of your notes—and if anything gets messed up, you can always go back to a previous version of your notes. That's a great way to collaborate with others on collecting info and more.

Do note, though, that you're sharing the entire notebook, so be sure to not have any personal or sensitive data in notebooks you share—especially if you're sharing them via a link.

Integrate OneNote with Other Apps

The best new feature of OneNote is that you can integrate it with other apps you already use, which is the easiest way save everything you want to remember to Evernote. You can email anything to OneNote—say, forwarding an email you'd like to archive—by sending an email from your account to me@onenote.com after you setup your email address.

You can also install the clipper bookmarklet to save webpages to OneNote. Go to the OneNote clipper page, and drag the Clip to OneNote button to your browser's bookmark bar. Now, when you visit a site you want to save, just click that Clip to OneNote button in your bookmarks bar, and it'll save the page to your OneNote account automatically.

Then, you can now use IFTTT with OneNote, which gives you an easy way to save your tweets or favorite Instapaper articles or anything else to OneNote automatically. You can also add OneNote to your Feedly account to save your RSS articles to OneNote, or integrate it with your Doxie scanner and save all your scanned documents to OneNote. And if you're a developer, you can even use its API to make your own OneNote integrations.

Integrate OneNote

Do note that all the notes you save with apps, email, and the clipper will be saved in the Unfiled Notes tab of your default notebook, and there's no way right not to have them automatically save elsewhere.

OCR, Digital Ink, and More on the PC

OneNote has even more power than just free-form notes, sharing, and integrations with other apps. It also can OCR your images so you can search for text in them or even copy the OCRed text to use in other apps, along with digital ink and handwriting support that make it even more like a smart paper notebook. It even has page templates, file attachments, audio and video recording, an equation editor, and more.

The only problem is, all these features are only in OneNote for Windows. If you have a PC, download the OneNote app for free and sync your notebooks to get these extra features on your PC. Once your OneNote notebooks from OneDrive are synced with your PC, leave OneNote open for a while as it will recognize the text in your images. It'll then sync that text back to OneDrive, and you can now search for text in your images using any of the OneNote apps. Or, on your PC, right-click on a picture and select Copy Text from Picture to copy the text OneNote detected in the picture and use it on your own.

OneNote on Windows

In the same way, you can make new pages using the Page Templates in OneNote on the PC, then sync your notebooks and the new template will show up in the other apps. Add multimedia and files, and they'll show on the PC but may or may not show up in the other apps. And, if you have a Surface or other touchscreen PC, you can use handwriting in your notes and the original handwriting or the text OneNote recognizes will be synced to your other OneNote apps as well.

In general, the OneNote for PC app has far more features, and if you want those features in your notes, you can sync them with the PC, add those extras there, and then sync back to get them in part on the other OneNote apps.

Conclusion

OneNote may be a decade old, but its new apps and integrations have given a fresh new start to most unique notes app available. With notebooks, sections, pages, and subpages, along with free-form editing tools that let you put your content anywhere and graphical tags that are far different from tags in any other app, it can be overwhelming when you first try it out. But if you've ever felt boxed in by the constraints of other notes apps, OneNote might be just the app for you.

If you don't use Windows, you won't get all of OneNote's features—but for the most part, even the basics in the mobile and web apps are enough to let OneNote replace any other notes app you're already using. Take it for a text drive, use the tips above to start organizing your notes and automatically save important info to OneNote, and leave a comment below if you hit any snags.

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