Using OneNote outlines for effective note taking

Applies to
Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 Service Pack 1 or later

By Andrew Watt

I first took meeting notes on a computer in 1988 using a Sinclair Z88 laptop with a silent keyboard. At the time I am sure I was viewed as a nut! Today few people doubt the wisdom of capturing information electronically while it is fresh, and OneNote lets you do exactly that. OneNote is, in my opinion, the most exciting note-taking tool that I have seen in the past 15 years.

With OneNote, you can build a structure as you take notes, when the information is clearest in your mind. Instead of spending valuable time trying to recreate the logic or progression of the information after the meeting or lecture, you can return to the information in a format that already makes sense. This existing structure lets you return to your notes later and immediately begin working to refine, fill in, and organize the information or turn your notes into a finished project. For example, after you finish organizing your notes, you can copy the outline you created into other programs, such as Microsoft Office Word 2003, where you can use it to create documents or presentations, such as term papers or datasheets.

Vertical and horizontal outlines

OneNote offers two types of structured outlines: vertical lists and horizontal columns. The following illustration shows these two types of layouts.

Example of outlines in OneNote

Button image Vertical outline structure

callout2 Indented items in a list

callout3 Horizontal outline structure

The horizontal format is handy for structuring information in a table-like layout. However, I prefer the vertical list format because I find it easier to create and modify vertical lists. Vertical lists present information in a clear hierarchy of headings, subheadings, and body text. In addition, the vertical list format tends to export more neatly to Word, which is a task I do often. Sending my OneNote outlines to Word allows me to take advantage of the strengths of both programs: OneNote for its flexibility in taking notes and organizing them, and Word for transforming these notes into a finished document.

For the rest of this article, I'll focus on working with vertical lists as outlines. I'll refer to these lists as "hierarchical" outlines.

Structuring outlines with bullets and numbering

There are a couple of different formatting options you can use in hierarchical outlines, namely bullets and numbering, for presenting information in lists or chronologies. Bulleted and numbered lists are useful for indicating the different levels of information in your notes.

For example, you can use bulleted lists to prepare information in an outline that you will use later to create a document. The order and structure of information in an outline that you are using to create a document often changes as you write the document. Bullets are convenient to use with information that may remain fluid until the document is complete. You can easily reorder and rearrange them by dragging or pasting outline elements, without confusing the overall organization of your outline.

Numbering is useful for preparing outlines where your information needs to be presented in a definite order, for example, in a speech or lecture. Numbering can be a very convenient way to organize your thoughts ahead of time and to follow in your notes, step by step, when you give the presentation.

Indenting outline elements

A hierarchical outline consists of headings, subheadings, and body text. The following illustration shows an example of how these elements can be combined to create an outline.

Example of an outline in OneNote

Button image Heading

callout2 Subheading

callout3 Body text

You can start your hierarchy with headings, and then use the indent feature in OneNote to place related outline elements beneath these headings. In the example above, the main ideas or overviews are headings, and the items under them have been added as body text or subheadings.

In addition to indenting text and headings, you can decrease the indent of an outline element and promote it to a higher level.

Expanding and collapsing outlines

After you create your outline, you might want to view only certain levels of the outline. For example, if you are a student, you might create a multilevel outline that contains a lot of detail about a particular subject. To study for a test, you could collapse your outline to only the highest levels, and then quiz yourself on the information that is hidden. Collapsing your outline down to the highest level might also be useful if you are giving a speech based on that outline. Even if you memorize most of the speech, you might want to bring your collapsed outline on a note-card size piece of paper to use as a reference, just in case you forget anything. The illustration below shows an example of an outline collapsed to the highest levels.

Collapsed outline in OneNote

Depending on your needs, you can choose how deep to view your outline by using the expand and collapse feature.

Rearranging outline elements

When creating an outline, you may need to reorganize the order of certain elements in your outline. For example, you may decide that what you originally thought was a high-level item actually belongs to a lower level. With OneNote you can easily drag outline elements to different levels in your hierarchy.


In a complex outline, it helps to indent the outline element to the appropriate level before you move it. This can help prevent potentially confusing changes in the outline when you move the element.

Extracting outline elements

Sometimes you may want to move an item from one outline to another. For example, if you are preparing multiple versions of a presentation, where the subject matter is basically the same yet each version is geared toward a slightly different audience, you can save time by repurposing elements of your outline to create new versions. If your outlines are on different pages in your notebook, use the copy and paste commands to move elements from one page to another. If your outlines are on the same page, simply drag the outline element you want to move to the appropriate location in the other outline.

Sending outlines to Word

When I'm finished creating and modifying my outlines, I often export them to Word using the Send To feature in OneNote. When I send my hierarchical outline to Word, a new Word document is opened. My outline appears in Word just as it did in OneNote, allowing me to transform the outline into a report or other formal document.

For example, to prepare for writing a white paper, you might do a substantial amount of research on the Web and store that information in OneNote. After you finish your research, you can prepare an outline based on the information in your notebook. When you're ready to begin writing the paper, you can send that outline to a Word document, and then use it to create your white paper.

 Note   Vertical list outlines transfer to Word much more neatly than horizontal outlines. If you try to send a horizontal outline to Word, all of your information will appear in Word, but most of your formatting will be lost.


As you can see, OneNote allows you to create hierarchical outlines with great flexibility and provides straightforward ways to restructure your information, including bulleted and numbered lists, indenting, and expanding and collapsing the content. You can export your completed outlines easily to Word, where you can use them to create meeting reports or other formal documents without retyping or recreating the work you've already done.

Andrew Watt is an independent consultant and computer book author with expertise in XML and Web technologies. He has also written about a number of innovative technologies, including Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG).

Applies to:
OneNote 2003