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Mastering OneNote: How OneNote works from the top down

Most of the Office programs work in a similar way with discrete files for each different document, and all of the content is contained within these files which can easily be attached to emails, or copied to flash drives to share. However, OneNote is different because the content is spread across pages in different sections and even different notebooks. The easiest way to make OneNote work like Word or Excel is not to.

Most OneNote power users do not use the program on a file level but instead interact with their notebooks via the OneNote family of programs and apps without worrying how they are working in the background. This can be difficult for people to accept, and OneNote does have the capability to copy and move files around, but that is not the ideal usage case. If you are someone who cannot use the cloud to sync content and needs a way to do pass notebooks around manually then that will be covered later but not in this article.

How the different 'bins' are organized in OneNote

How the different ‘bins’ are organized in OneNote

Getting back on track, OneNote works with different containers which together build the structure which content lives within. The highest level is the notebook and when created can be stored locally, on a network, or in the cloud via OneDrive. I recommend saving your OneNote notebooks in the cloud because Microsoft gives all users space for free which should suit nearly everyone’s needs, and this is the best way to protect your files, and access them from anywhere and any device. It is worth noting that if you plan to share your notebooks they either need to be stored in a shared network space or in the cloud. Also sharing (to enable co-authoring) occurs at the notebook level and access to individual pages cannot be shared.

The next largest grouping in OneNote would be Section Groups, which are an optional organizational tool which enables sections to be grouped under a single topic or heading. If you are the type of person who like to over organize then Section Groups can be an easy tool to make your notebooks more complicated than they need to be. In my opinion, Section Groups should be used when a notebook has more than ten sections and some are related.

After Section Groups comes the obvious container, the Section. Sections are a required organizational tool which break notebooks up into more relatable topics. Sections are given a title and their color can be adjusted to the user’s preference. When starting in OneNote, good sections can be hard to nail down but don’t worry because the titles can be changed and pages can be moved around until you find a good system which works well for you.

Just like real notebooks, sections are built of pages which hold the content. Pages are where text, ink, images, documents, tables, and more are stored. Pages can be sent out as emails and are the canvas which is used when working in OneNote. There is such a thing as sub-pages, which are really just pages that have been made into sub-pages meaning they can be collapsed under their ‘main page’ to save space and reduce the clutter in the page pane. Sub-pages behave no differently than regular pages, and their ability to be collapsed is not supported in every OneNote product.

Organizing content in OneNote can be daunting but remember you have the ability to move content around if you change your mind. Sections can be added or removed from groups and pages can be moved and/or copied to different sections to switch up how things are organized. Your organizational structure will and should change as you add more and more to your OneNote notebooks. If you plan to share your notes, then remember that is done at the notebook level so all the content in the notebook is available to those who have access.

Next we’ll cover getting your content into OneNote and how to get value from OneNote right away!

This is the third post in a multi-part series exploring Microsoft OneNote. If there is a particular topic in OneNote that you want us to cover, let us know in the comments below. Previous stories in this series:

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How do you organize your notebooks?