Mastering OneNote: Breaking into the basics

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This is the second post in a multi-part series exploring Microsoft OneNote. You can read the first post titled "Mastering OneNote: How to think about OneNote". If there is a particular topic in OneNote that you want us to cover, let us know in the comments below.

Getting started with OneNote is easy with nearly zero barriers to entry, and a long steady learning curve. The one thing to keep in mind while beginning is that OneNote is simply digital paper which can be as organized or structured as you like. The easiest way to begin would be not to worry about how to organize your pages or content. Instead focus on an objective and the form your pages and notebooks take will become clear.

Pages are where all the content lives and are created by clicking the 'Add Page' button
Pages are where all the content lives and are created by clicking the 'Add Page' button

Starting small, create a new page by clicking the add page on the top of the right hand pane in the Quick Notes section, and title it "Lists" by clicking in the top left corner of the page above the line and date, note the title also shows up in the page lists. When the page has been titled press enter to begin adding content to the page. Now type "Grocery Store" the type "Eggs." Now look in the ribbon and find the section titled tags, then click the "To Do Tag". You should see a box appear to the left of the word eggs, and when you start a new line below eggs and type new items like "Milk" and "Bread" they also have boxes. These boxes can be click/tapped to be checked off making to-do lists, or grocery lists, or procedures easy and straight forward. To remove the tag simply return your cursor to the beginning of the line and press the backspace key once. These check boxes behave similar to bulleted or numbered lists.

Tags represent a way in OneNote to flag information and make it easier to find later. Under the tag section in the ribbon you can see there is a long list of different tags which can be used to identify different kinds of information such as phone numbers, movies, project A/B, and more. So far these tags do nothing special with the information and tagging an address with the address tag doesn't unlock special functionality, which seems like a missed opportunity.

Now that we have a simple list in OneNote lets go over some of the other basic elements. First you probably noticed the border which surrounds your list when you hover over it or are typing in it. This content box contains text in OneNote and enables users to throw content all over the page while retaining the ability to move around blocks of content easily. Clicking in the middle of the page will move the cursor to that point and typing will automatically create a new content box with the typed text.

OneNote is great at making lists for shopping or to-dos
OneNote is great at making lists for shopping or to-dos

Content boxes can overlap each other which is important to keep in mind if you are trying to troubleshoot a page. Also not everything lives inside these content boxes, stuff like inking or images can float on their own but images can also be pasted into content boxes to be moved and managed as a unit. Inking on the other hand remains unbounded by the content box. The triangles on the right end of the top bar controls how wide a content box displays. Dragging the triangles will resize the content inside the box. There is no need to control the bottom boundary of a content box because it will keep expanding or contracting automatically as content is added or removed from the box.

With this simple page play around with the formatting of the text. Highlight words, lines, or entire boxes and apply different styles by choosing them in the Basic Text section of the ribbon. Anyone who is familiar with Word will notice the Styles section where quick styles can be applied to headings to make them stand out. OneNote has a few different style options by default which are helpful for making content easier to understand right away.

Many of the formatting features from other Office programs are in OneNote, but not everything
Many of the formatting features from other Office programs are in OneNote, but not everything

In this post we have covered the basics of creating a page, making lists, using tags, and adding formatting. While these tools are simple they are the foundation for everything on OneNote and can extremely helpful when trying to get organized. Tags will come back into play later when notebooks get complicated and to-do lists get lost in pages and pages of notes. Creating quick lists also is one of the things which OneNote does well because they are simple and easy to use while not being too demanding when it comes to formatting and layout.

Check back for more in the Mastering OneNote series to learn how to be saved from ambiguous digital information. Next I'll go over how OneNote is structured and organized.

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