Ode to OneNote

OneNote was brought to my attention when we upgraded our MS Office Suite and a department at work created an “eBook” in OneNote that contains all of the information that their department needs to share with the rest of the company. I had never heard of OneNote before this.

I’m not used to being caught unawares like that–I’m pretty well-versed in Microsoft’s full suite of Office products–so I had to immediately check out the eBook and poke around my own copy of the software. Intrigued by what I saw, I got on Lynda.com (we have a subscription at work) and watched a basic overview of how to use it.

Sweet Moses in the bulrushes! Where have you been all my life!?

What is OneNote?

81nia28xsOL._SL1500_So, the concept is basic enough. Imagine a 3-ring binder with divider tabs. You may have multiple binders: one for recipes, one for craft ideas, one for class handouts from school, etc.

If you have a recipe binder, you might have divider tabs for appetizers, meats, vegetables, desserts, drinks, etc., and behind each of those tabs you will have recipes–probably one per page. You may even group those together still further so that all of your chicken recipes are together, all of your beef recipes are in a subsection, and so forth.

Now, take that binder and put it into digital form and you have OneNote.

What Can You Use It For?

Obviously if you keep any kind of notebook–like for school or recipes–it can be converted to OneNote. If you do research for your writing, you can use it for that, too.

I’m currently setting up an eBook to hold all of my medieval research. Too often I find myself remembering a picture with a certain feature in it, but I don’t know the name of the picture (if, indeed, it even has one) and I can’t find it again. Even if I saved a copy to my computer, I might have to open a lot of pictures until I find the one that has the feature that I’m looking for. Plus, there’s no good way to attach a lot of  bibliographic information (name of the picture, what manuscript it came from, what museum it’s in, the website where I found it, etc.) to the picture.

OneNote solves that problem. Now I can put a metric buttload* of medieval pictures in OneNote and organize them and add picture information and other notes. I can even add quotes from books that I know I will use frequently or think that I will need to use in the future.  When I need to put together a research paper, I have all the information I need in one place and it will just be a matter of copying and pasting it into Word and writing the thesis portion.

OneNote 1

Why not use Pinterest?

I like Pinterest and use it, but there comes a point when you have a lot of pictures on it and no way to organize them. It ends up being no different than having a lot of pictures on your computer and you have to slowly scroll through them to pick out all the pictures that contain what you’re looking for (women’s socks, for instance, or images of knives). On OneNote, I can dump all of my sock pictures on one page labeled “Socks & Hosen.” If a picture contains more than one interesting feature, I can paste a copy of it on other pages. And any text I add to the page (describing the picture, for instance) is searchable.

OneNote 2

What can you put into it?

OneNote holds just about every kind of media that you can think of.

At work, I have a lot of .pdf files that I’ve created which are full of information. I wanted to make those files available to other people in the company. So I made an eBook, made pages for each property, and dropped all the applicable files onto each property’s page.

In addition to .pdf files, you can do Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, etc. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s a file that you can’t put on there. (Of course, if you don’t have the software on your computer to open it, you can’t access it.)

You can also embed information directly on the page. You can simply copy text from a Word document, Excel file, etc. and paste it directly into OneNote. Or you can insert a “File Printout” which will basically turn whatever file you select into a picture and embed it on the page. (This option makes the text uneditable; if you want to edit your text or spreadsheet in OneNote, copy and paste it in.)

Pictures can also be dragged and dropped or copied and pasted into OneNote and resized.

You can set pages to have lines, like notebook paper, or grids, like graph paper. Then you can use the drawing tools to draw freehand or with basic shapes. (This option would be best used on a device that allows you to draw with a pen tool.) So, if you like to draw diagrams, it can accommodate that.


I haven’t used it, but it also has a feature that allows you to record audio or video live and embed it directly into the page. (Not sure if it just shows up as a file, or if it actually embeds a player directly on the page.) So, if you’re a student and you take your laptop with you to class, you can record the lecture directly into OneNote. And while that’s recording, you can type or draw your notes right on the same page. And, if I remember my Lynda video correctly, OneNote also notices when you make notes and links those notes to the time index on the recording. So, if you click on a section of your notes, it will automatically take you to the portion of the recording that was happening when you made those notes. (Which is obviously the coolest thing ever.)

Why not just use a shared drive to exchange files?

You can do that and you certainly should do that if all you want to do is swap some files back and forth. But if you have files that need explanation or you want to tie one or more files together (e.g. a project that has multiple files that need to be kept together or in a certain order, or files that have tutorials that explain how to use them, etc.), OneNote makes it easy to keep like things together and to add text and other media.

For instance, if you do a lot of brochures for your company, you might have a tab for each geographic region and a page for each location within that region. On each page, you may have a selection of the pictures that you typically use for that location, copyright/licensing information for each picture, and maybe the files of all the previous brochures.

Yes, you could keep all of that information in individual files on a drive on your computer or network, but instead of having to open all the pictures individually, then open a separate file with the copyright info, you can keep it all together on one page in OneNote.

If you are a property manager, you might have a page for each property you have. And on each page you can have one or more pictures of the property, current tenant information, leasing information, tax information, preferred vendors (i.e. electrician, plumber, pest control, etc.), leads for new tenants or interested investors, etc. If your tenants tear the place up, you don’t have to dig through all the files on your computer (because, let’s face it, most people aren’t terribly organized in that regard) to find the pictures you took before they moved in. It will be right there in OneNote for you. You might even have subpages for each tenant with before and after pictures so you can document who was a good tenant and who you won’t let back in on a bet.

And, if you want to make a brochure to showcase your property, you can just drag and drop the bits of content over to Publisher where you can turn it into a polished presentation. But even if you don’t have time (or the skills) for that, you can print part or all of your OneNote eBook or turn it into a .pdf to email to someone as-is.


OneNote can handle mixed media (e.g. text and a picture and a file all on the same page), but it’s not terribly pretty. You can’t manipulate mixed media to the extent that you can on Publisher or even Word. When you insert a picture or even a file into a text box, the text will be top and bottom only; there is no way to make the text flow around the picture as you are accustomed to seeing on blogs or in magazines. You can justify the picture left, center, or right, but that’s it. In order to make my pages pretty, I put the picture on the page by itself and then use one or more text boxes beside and under it to make my text appear to flow around it. (In other words, I do manually what it should do automatically.)

Also, the only thing you can do to a picture is resize it. You can’t even crop it in OneNote, much less flip it, brighten or darken it or change the hue. If you have a picture that needs some basic photo editing like that, you should do it in Windows Live Photo Gallery (or equivalent), or just paste the picture into a blank Word document, adjust it, then copy it again and paste it into OneNote.

You Mentioned Sharing . . .

If you put OneNote on a shared network drive or on a cloud drive (personally, I use Dropbox; at work, we use Microsoft’s cloud), you can share it with anyone who also has access to that drive.

Here’s the way it works:

You build a OneNote eBook on your computer and tell it to save to your cloud drive. (And once you’ve told it where to save, it will save automatically from there on out. No having to remember to save frequently, no losing your info if your computer crashes on you in the middle of something.) But, in reality, OneNote actually saves a copy on your computer and on your cloud drive. Which means you can continue to work in OneNote, even if you aren’t currently connected to your drive (think working on a laptop when you don’t have wi-fi access to the cloud).

Let’s say you have a partner that you’re collaborating with. (In my case, my medieval research eBook may end up being a joint effort between me and my husband, with both of us working on it from our personal computers and the end result saved on my cloud drive.) Your partner has access to your cloud and also has OneNote on his computer. All you have to do is go into OneNote and “share” it with him. OneNote will send that person an email with a link to the eBook that allows him to open it. When he opens it for the first time, it will download from the cloud onto his computer. He can then work on it offline, too. Whenever either of you reconnect to the cloud, OneNote will automatically sync the working copies with the master copy on the cloud. If you both make changes at the same time while offline and then sync, OneNote will attempt to merge the different changes or, worst case scenario, it will make duplicate tabs or pages–one containing each person’s changes–and you can manually merge the information.

It also has a “track changes” type of feature that shows you who changed the eBook since you last looked at it and when, which is really handy if you have multiple people collaborating and you want to keep up with what’s changing without reading all the material every time.

But what if I don’t want people to be able to edit it?

When you share your eBook with people, it will have an option to make them an editor (default) or you can change it so they have view only rights. As many people as you want (within reason, obviously) can edit and as many as you want can view it. For our eBook at work, there are only three people who can edit it, but several hundred who can view it.

And even though the view-only people can’t edit the book, they can still track changes and see what’s been added since they last accessed it and who made those changes and when.

Of course, you can change the editing/viewing rights of anyone later.

Also, you can password protect sections (tabs) so that only the people with the password can access that area.


Here’s what you see if you click on a password protected tab.

What About Mobile Applications?

OneNote does have an app that allows you to use it from a phone or tablet. I wouldn’t suggest trying to update or alter it from a phone, because you’re just not going to be able to work on such a small screen, but it will allow you to access it if you need to refer to it.

I don’t have a smartphone, so I haven’t personally tried using it, but a co-worker has used our eBook on her phone. Her only complaint is that it doesn’t want to automatically sync; she has to do it manually every time she wants to look at it to make sure that she’s seeing the latest version. But other than that, she has no problems using it.

So How Expensive Is It?

If you already have the latest version of MS Office (2013), you should already have OneNote on your computer. Just go to your Start button, open the list of programs, and open the MS Office 2013 file to see what programs you have installed. If you don’t see it there, it could be that someone left it out of the original Office installation; check your Office CD to see if installing it is an option.

For the rest of you . . . it’s free to download. There is one catch (of course): you must have Windows 7 or newer; it will not download on a Vista machine. (Ax me how I know.)

Free OneNote download!

So, what are you waiting for? Get a copy and start organizing your stuff!

* A metric buttload is 108 litres. Just so you know.

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