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Is Microsoft OneNote the One for You?

How a lesser-known part of Microsoft Office 2010 can help you organize your nonprofit or library's notes and projects

By: Debbi Landshoff

June 28, 2012

This article was originally published on

If you have Microsoft Office 2010 or Office 2007, OneNote is probably installed on your computer. But chances are you don't really know what OneNote can do for you and haven't used it yet.

Microsoft OneNote 2010 lets you gather notes and other information and organize it as a digital notebook. The structure is similar to familiar paper notebooks with the added benefit that you can electronically search, reorganize, and share the contents.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Patrick Duggan, TechSoup's Technology Marketing Copywriter, needs to take his laptop to meetings in many different locations. He started using OneNote so he wouldn't also have to lug around a paper notebook. Now he loves the fact that he has one place to keep notes for all of his projects, with separate tabs for each project.
  • Autumn Teeter, TechSoup's Optimization Analyst, started using OneNote as a writing tool when she organized a training manual that had many sections. Now, she keeps a separate notebook for each of her major responsibility areas. Autumn tracks her tasks with To Do lists and loves that OneNote includes the original location (URL) for content from web pages.
  • Yann Toledano, volunteer host for TechSoup's Web Building forum, uses OneNote mostly for larger projects that are demanding or require many steps. He says, "I place all my items related to a project (next actions, notes, links, reference materials, etc.) in the same area. I can then quickly refer to this section as needed to see what I've done, what's next to do, and to track my overall progress. Using this tool gives me a better sense of control over my work."

Both Patrick and Autumn had been aware of OneNote for several years, but they only tried it after a colleague mentioned how the software might help them. This article is meant to help you, too, realize ways in which OneNote can help you work smarter and quicker.

What Are Notebooks?

In the same way that Microsoft Word lets you create word-processing documents and Microsoft Excel is for creating spreadsheets, Microsoft OneNote allows you to create notebooks.

Notebook organization is flexible and can change as your needs change. For example, you can move pages around within a section, between sections, or to different notebooks.

Because the notebooks are computer files, you can back them up and restore them as needed.

Benefits of OneNote

Unlike with paper notebooks, OneNote lets you:

  • Gather and store many types of information, including text, pictures, audio, and video
  • Easily move and reorganize all or part of your notebooks
  • Record audio and video
  • Share a single notebook with several contributors on a network or over the Internet
  • Print all or part of a notebook and create Word or PDF documents from the notebook contents
  • Reduce paper clutter and waste

What Does OneNote Look Like?

Below is a screenshot of a very simple OneNote 2010 notebook. Earlier versions have toolbars and a slightly different working area but are otherwise quite similar.

OneNote screenshot - diagram of the OneNote window
  1. The top of the window has the type of toolbar, title, and application controls you see in other Microsoft Office applications.
  2. The large working area in the center shows your current page. Each OneNote page can be as long or short as you want, and you can have as many pages as you need.
  3. Across the top of the page area are section tabs. Sections are one of the main ways in which you can organize your notes.
  4. At the left is a navigation bar. You can use it to move back and forth through the various sections. If you have several notebooks open, they will all show up in the navigation bar and you can move between them.
  5. At the right, the page tabs show all the pages (and subpages if any) of the current section.

Adding Content to a Notebook

To add content to a notebook, you can:

  • Type or draw in OneNote. In general, formatting text and creating drawings is simpler than in a word-processing application.
  • Insert files from another application or from the Internet.
  • Send to OneNote from other Microsoft Office applications. Some browsers also have commands to send content to OneNote.
  • Add and edit images. OneNote provides the same tools that you find in other Microsoft Office applications.
  • Record audio and video and scan pages directly into OneNote.
  • Use the OneNote mobile application (available for Windows Phone 7, iPhone, iPad, and Android) to type or record notes and then sync with your notebook.

To Do Lists and Tasks

You can use OneNote to keep track of tasks for yourself or for a team.

To Do is a specific style in OneNote. Each To Do item has a checkbox that you can click when the task is complete.

OneNote screenshot - ToDo item

If you share notebooks, all team members can check off their own tasks, so everyone knows the current status. If your organization uses Microsoft Outlook, you can create your Outlook tasks in OneNote.

Organizing Projects

Depending on the complexity of your projects, you might want to have a separate notebook for each project or type of project. You might have several similarly organized projects, or you might want to share notebooks with different members of different projects. You can have more than one notebook open at one time, so it is easy to move between notebooks as needed.

For projects that don't require a separate notebook, you might choose to give each project its own section. As you work on the project, you can add and organize pages as needed. For very simple projects, you can put everything into a single page.

As you become comfortable with OneNote, you can investigate additional options such as section groups and subpages.


Microsoft OneNote 2010 allows you to password-protect sections. With this function, you can control who has access to certain parts of shared notebooks and protect against unauthorized use of your computer. This can come in handy should you choose to store a list of your login credentials in one of your notebooks.

Additional Resources

About the Author:

Debbi has been working at TechSoup for over six years, writing about donor partners’ products and their donation programs.