10 tips for using OneNote to keep your good ideas from getting away

OneNote makes it easy to preserve, organize, and retrieve ideas and info you might otherwise forget or lost track of. These basic pointers will get you started.

Wouldn't it be great to have some kind of magical notepad that just captured all your best ideas the minute you think them? (Or course, depending on what you're thinking about, capturing everything might not be such a good idea.) OneNote 2010, one of the apps included in the Office 2010 suite, doesn't work magically, but it does work well, gathering up your notes in a variety of forms, working seamlessly with the other apps, and enabling you to access them over the Web or using your mobile phone. This article suggests 10 ways OneNote helps you get your thoughts in order.

1: Capture ideas wherever they arise -- and file them later

Depending on how you think best, you may love to toss out a bunch of ideas and then file them later. Or maybe you're a more orderly creative thinker: You'd prefer to open the notebook you need and file your notes away as they occur to you. OneNote makes it easy for you to grab notes either way.

If you're an on-the-fly kind of person, you can create a new note on your OneNote Mobile app or click New Side Note to open a pop-up note where you can add your thoughts (Figure A). OneNote saves the side note by default in your Unfiled Notes folder. When you want to see what good ideas you've dumped into Unfiled Notes, just click the notes icon in the bottom left corner of the OneNote window.

Figure A

You can create a new side note on the fly and OneNote deposits it in your Unfiled Notes folder.

2: Grab snapshots of inspiring things

Now that we have digital cameras on our phones, we can grab pictures of everything, from cool product packaging to a vacation poster to something cute the kids did. You can easily add your pictures to your OneNote notebook one of two ways. You can grab a picture on your phone and then use your OneNote Mobile app to create a new note that includes the picture. When this note syncs with your OneNote Web App, you'll be able to access that notebook also through your desktop version of OneNote.

If you want to just add images to your desktop version -- in other worlds, you're not out in the world gathering snapshots -- just display the page where you want to add the image, click Insert, click Picture, and choose the picture you want to add to your note (Figure B). You can also drag and drop images right from your desktop to your notes pages.

Figure B

Add pictures easily to your notes pages from your phone or your desktop.

3: Sketch out your ideas

OneNote knows that we don't all think alike or want to express our ideas the same way everybody else does it. Maybe you think best with a sketchpad in your hands. Or you like to doodle on napkins or write notes on a printout someone else has provided. You can do all those things, in essence, in OneNote. The Draw tab offers the tools you need. You can sketch your ideas, highlight existing notes, and doodle to your heart's content (Figure C).

Figure C

Type, scribble, or sketch -- the choice is yours.

4: Store your notebook online and share it easily

You can save your notebook to the Web so that you can access it from anywhere using the OneNote Web App. To save a notebook to the Web as you create it, click the File tab and click New. The New Notebook page in Backstage view gives you three choices for places to store your new notebook: on the Web, on a network, or on your computer.

Saving a notebook to the Web involves Windows Live SkyDrive (if you don't currently have an account you'll be prompted to create one). Click the folder you want to use to store the file and then click Create Notebook. Now any notes you create in that notebook will be automatically synched with your Web-based notebook, and you'll be able to view and share your OneNote Web App notebook using your mobile phone or by sharing the link with friends and coworkers through email.

5: Find what you need

OneNote is made for lightning-fast searches, whether you're looking for a word or a phrase, an image, an author, or a tag. I love the search capability because it instantly brings up results no matter how many -- or how few -- characters you've typed. You can also add search criteria to help you locate the notes you're looking for within a specific page, section, or notebook. And you can search all notebooks at once, choosing the search criteria you select as the default search you want to use for future searches (Figure D).

Figure D

OneNote offers fast, effective search features.

6: View it your way

When I take notes, I like to add ideas in a running column down the side of the page. I don't like to display the notebook in full-screen view and then have to switch among the apps I use while I'm thinking about the notes I want to add. Two view controls you'll use often in OneNote are parked in your Quick Access Toolbar in the top-left corner of the screen. You can click Dock To Desktop if you want to display the OneNote notebook in a small column along the right side of your screen. If you prefer full-screen view, click Full Page View (or press F11). One challenge here, though, is that neither of these controls gets you back to the traditional notes-on-the-left, pages-on-the-right display. To do that, you'll need to click the View tab and click Normal View at the left end of the Ribbon.

7: Trade in your paper style

It's a curious thing how much we like our preferences, especially when it comes to the items that help us stay in the creative flow. I have one friend who can take notes only on yellow legal pads. I personally like the cleaner look of a white notebook sheet myself. Whatever your preferences are, OneNote can accommodate you.

To change the look of the paper you're using, click the View tab and choose Page Color and Rule Lines in the Page Setup group. With Page Color, you can choose from a palette of 16 soft hues. Rule Lines gives you a total of nine layout options, ranging from no lines to grid paper you can use for diagramming with accuracy.

8: Tag 'em, Dano!

OneNote's powerful search feature can easily pull together the content you're looking for if it includes a specified word or phrase. But you need more than just search capability to really organize and access the collection of notes you've gathered on a selected topic. That's what you can use tagging for -- to identify notes you might want to access later for work on a specific project, to remind yourself how you referred to an item (so you can find all items like it), and to help you remember to review data you think is important (knowing that by the end of the week you'll have forgotten what it was you wanted to remind yourself about).

You can use the tags that OneNote has already created for you by right-clicking the content you want to tag, pointing to Tag in the context menu, and clicking the tag you want to apply. OneNote adds a small icon to the left of the tagged paragraph. You can also add your own tags by right-clicking the paragraph, pointing to Tag, clicking Customize Tags, and clicking New Tag in the Customize Tags dialog box (Figure E). In the New Tag window, enter a name, choose an icon, select a font color and highlighting, and click OK. Now the tag will appear in the Tags list so that you can select it whenever you need it.

Figure E

Tag your notes to identify the ones you want to return to easily later.

9: Add notes as you go

The Office Web Apps enable you to use your Windows Mobile phone to keep in step with your files from a remote location. The OneNote Web App lets you create and record new notes on the fly. The notes are saved to your OneNote Web App notebook in your SkyDrive account. You can also share this notebook with your desktop OneNote. One feature I'd like to see here -- maybe in OneNote 15? -- is the ability to switch easily among notebooks or choose a different notebook as the default. Down the road, as we amass more and more notebooks in OneNote, having the flexibility to switch among them using our mobile devices will become increasingly important.

10: Let OneNote play with other apps

This feature is the one that takes OneNote up and over the fence when you compare it to Evernote. I really love Evernote (and wrote a book about it, in fact). But when you're working on a huge, complicated note-gathering project, OneNote's organizing features -- and its ability to work seamlessly alongside your other apps -- really make this app stand out. Both Word and PowerPoint 2010 include a Linked Notes tool in the Review tab, which enables you to link a OneNote notebook to your document or presentation files so that you can update your content easily and double-check those facts and figures.

Similarly, Internet Explorer and Outlook both play nice with OneNote. You can clip content from the Web by simply highlighting it and choosing Send To OneNote. You can also move email messages or orchestrate meetings and tasks in Outlook by choosing various tools in the Ribbons of both Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010.

The payoff

These are just a few suggestions for getting started, but there's a lot more you can do with OneNote to get yourself organized and capture those great ideas so they don't slip through the cracks. All in all, it does take a little discipline -- you have to stop playing Tetris for a moment and actually type or scribble that thought so that it can be preserved somewhere. But with a little practice, capturing the notes gets easier, and the ideas will really begin to flow. That's the best thing -- and maybe the biggest payoff --of using OneNote regularly. You might be surprised to see how many great ideas you've collected over time. And if you continue to share them, other folks will notice and benefit, too.

By Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 P...