Reference Desk #5 – OneNote

There’s a small company called Microsoft that makes a little-known suite of productivity software called Office. Oh, you’ve heard of them?

Okay, yes, I really am going to shill for Microsoft a little bit here. Why? Because I like OneNote.

How Did This Happen?

I first encountered OneNote at my day job, where I automatically get a Microsoft Office subscription. I was mildly confused and irritated. Microsoft already had Word, the bloated, menu-bursting word processor so many of us know and tolerate. Now they were going to throw yet another application at me, and it’s also just for writing text? With fewer features?

It seemed like a product in search of a purpose.

However, I started noticing others using it. I tentatively tried it. I started to realize that the simplicity was a feature. Pretty soon I was using it for meeting notes, for project notes, for miscellaneous thoughts and to-do lists. I even started using it at home, for my writing notes.

In short, they had managed to hook me.

But Why?

OneNote isn’t exactly a word processor. It doesn’t try to do fancy layouts. It doesn’t have a ton of options.I do approximately two things with it: simple organization, and simple text.

Organization in OneNote breaks down into notebooks, tabs, and pages. These are convenient virtual metaphors that map to the real world.

I can imagine having a work notebook and a home notebook. I can imagine my work notebook with little colored tabs, separated into sections for the projects I’m working on. Likewise, my home notebook would have tabs for each of my writing projects: novels, stories, and blog. And within each tab are pages with specific notes: a page for a blog post, a page for chapter outlines of a novel, a page for that short story.

OneNote provides an additional organization feature: a hierarchy of pages, up to three levels deep. I mostly use this feature to organize several pages under a title or heading in the side-bar. For example, my Blog tab has headings for Razor Mountain, general blog posts, and reference desk posts, among others.

It’s easy to imagine unlimited levels of hierarchy, but I find that the limitation is good for me. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of endless, complicated hierarchies, which is what inevitably happens to my computer desktop. The limitation forces me to stick to a simpler, more straightforward organizational system that actually serves me better.

Notes and Only Notes

When I write out notes the old-fashioned way, in a notebook, I generally don’t do anything fancy. I just jot down text. I might occasionally underline or circle something important, or create a bulleted or numbered list. I might write notes for different things on different parts of the page, all willy-nilly.

OneNote doesn’t provide fancy layout or crazy text options. It makes it easy to do the handful of things I tend to want to do when I’m writing notes. I have quick hot-keys for bulleted and numbered lists. I can throw a freeform chunk of text anywhere on a page. I can do the standard text decorations: bold, italics, underline and highlight. And I can easily grab notes from one spot in the page and move them to another spot, or to an entirely different page, tab or notebook.

At this point, I suppose I have to admit that OneNote does have a few other features. You can insert pictures and videos, which I can certainly see some value in, even if I don’t often do it. You can insert spreadsheets as well, which might be justifiable, since they do make notebooks with graph paper. You can draw or write directly, if you’re using a touchscreen or are braver with a mouse than I am.

The other feature that really sells OneNote for me is the synchronization. I have my Office account and notebook for work, and my personal Office account and notebooks for home. I can sync them both on my home computer, my work computer, and my phone. All of my work saves as soon as I write it. It seamlessly updates across my devices, as long as I have internet. Very little complexity or effort.

That said, when I get deep into writing stories and novels, I move over to Scrivener, because it’s good at organizing and laying out fiction. But before I get to that point, when I just want to generate tons of notes, I do it in OneNote, because that’s what it’s good at.

That’s It

I understand that not everyone wants to sign up with Microsoft. Not everyone wants to pay a subscription for a product (myself included). Despite my best efforts, OneNote has won me over. It works for me because it does one thing and it does it well. It almost always picks simplicity over extra features.

If you’re looking for an application to organize your notes that can sync across a variety of devices, I recommend you give it a try.

You can try the 2016 version for free on all sorts of devices, but the latest and greatest requires purchasing Office.