My note-taking tools, part 1: OneNote 2010

I have a weird interest in scouring the web for note-taking tips and ideas, as well as idea on how to keep organized with notes and such. Of course, have I ever thought to post my approach to the process? Nope! So, for anyone interested, I’ll share my current note-taking and organizing process. Enjoy!

I have tried a number of different ‘systems’ for note-taking while I’ve been a student, everything from a fully paper-based system to a (nearly) fully digital system. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. I also seem to enjoy changing on a regular basis. Like every semester. Which defeats some of the usability of any given system, but oh well.

My ‘system’ consists right now of:

You can probably tell from that list that I am, at least partially, a paperless note-taker at the moment. I opted to go paperless, however, for several reasons. One is of course, saving paper. Less expense, less waste, etc. Another big reason for me is portability. Because I am living several thousand miles away from home, and often work from different locations in Belfast, a digital system allows me to access my notes anywhere, and that is very handy right now. The downside is that I do miss the tangible interaction with paper. Another downside is that I am dependent on having electricity and, to some extent, an internet connection. Some might argue another downside is that there is a potential for the entire digital collection to vanish. True enough. And of course, paper NEVER vanishes. Ever. Sarcasm, aside, I think backups are important with either approach. Paper can me misplaced, destroyed, misfiled, etc. Digital files can disappear on a faulty hard drive, be accidentally deleted, and so on. Save your work people, no matter what the medium.

The central piece in my system right now is Microsoft OneNote. Why OneNote? I’ve used similar product Evernote which I like and continue to use. For academic work, however, OneNote appeals for two main reasons. First, I find the organization structure of ‘Notebooks > Tabs > Pages’ to be very logical and flexible. Evernote only allows for ‘notes’ to be placed within ‘notebooks’. OneNote, to me, more closely imitates the way I use “real” binders. Second, OneNote installs a virtual printer on your computer, allowing you to send anything you can print to OneNote instead. For me, this means I can “print” articles and research into OneNote. This collects them in one place, gives me ocr[1. For those of you non-techies, this stands for “optical character recognition” and basically means the computer is able to “read” the text in an image] search abilities, and allows me to highlight and annotate them–more on that in a bit.

So anything that starts in digital form–articles, book scans, class readings–I’ll simply print into OneNote and I’m done. For paper media, I simply scan into OneNote (which is very easy to do) and I’m set. I can also type notes in as I’m reading books or thinking through an outline. I can then refer back to my notes on my desktop or my netbook, as OneNote 2010 can sync notebooks between multiple computers. More on that in part 3. It also syncs with the iPod touch, and I can read my notes on the go–also very handy. I can also (with a real printer šŸ™‚ ) print my notes out and take them to class, file them, mail them, wallpaper, or whatever I feel like. Very handy. OneNote probably has a zillion other features I could use and don’t. Screen grabs, Outlook integration, audio & video features…

That’s it for part 1. Continue on to part 2 to see how I use paper, as well as the Wacom Pen Tablet. Or skip to part 3 to learn how I backup my work.


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