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Tips for easier handwriting in Microsoft OneNote By Grant S. Robertson Many new OneNote users seem to have difficulty when they first start taking notes in handwriting. They say it’s tough to control what OneNote does with the words they write on the screen. They end up with bits and pieces spread out in several places that don’t seem to be connected. Or they have trouble keeping track of their outline indent levels. Actually it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. All you have to do is write in the correct places on the screen in relation to your other handwriting so that OneNote knows you are creating a new line or indenting to a new level in the outline. It’s kind of like wood carving. If you carve with the grain it is much easier. But then, you have to be able to see the grain don’t you? To make the grain visible, so to speak, you have to change some of OneNote’s default settings. Turn on the small grid background [View / Grid Lines / Small Grid] and make the Writing Guides dark enough to see all the time [Tools / Options ; Display ; Adjust the darkness...[v] = Medium]. In the retail version you will also have to choose [Tools / Show Ink Groups] but this is always on in SP-1 and can’t be turned off. Naturally, you will want to keep all of your writing in the space between the horizontal lines. The descenders can drop down a little but not much. You can’t write at an angle and you shouldn’t write so big that you cross both the top and bottom rule line of the line you are writing in. I set the zoom to 75% on my 14” Acer C300. This makes the rule lines appear just a little wider than I would prefer but I get good handwriting recognition later. 50% seems to work OK but the recognition isn’t quite as good and my handwriting is then a little too small for me to easily see and read in all situations. I have also found that it really helps to have control over which tools you are using. Customize the toolbar and add the buttons for ‘Create Handwriting Only’, ‘Create Both Handwriting and Drawings’, and ‘Create Drawings Only’. Then you can always see which mode you are in and quickly switch between them. It is also a good idea to disable the [Tools / Options ; Handwriting ; Automatically switch between Pen and Selection Tool] setting. Again, you want to be in control of which tool you are using.
Figure 1: All your tools available for quick selection. (Notice that you can place buttons within the menu bar to save space.)
Carving With the Grain, or Basic Handwriting: When I write, I always start my first paragraph at the second vertical line by tapping the screen on that vertical line and two thirds of the way up from the horizontal line that I want to be my base line. OneNote then starts a new writing guide. You will notice that it fits almost exactly within the grid lines. I start at the second vertical line so there will be room for bullets and at least one Note Flag to the left of the paragraph while still allowing you to see and use the paragraph handle.
Figure 2: Just before tapping the screen. Figure 3: Just after tapping the screen.
To make my paragraphs stand out from each other I like to indent the first line. Even though we tricked OneNote into creating the Writing Guide at the second vertical line I actually start writing at the third vertical line (or one grid to the right of the left edge of the Writing Guide). While it is possible to tap-and-indent more than one grid space for a really indented first line, you can only get away with that for the first paragraph at any one outline level. If you go any further to the right on subsequent paragraphs then OneNote will move the edge of the writing Figure 4: guide up to where your writing begins and consider it an indented paragraph. (More on that in the next section.) I only do this tap-and-indent trick when I know I will be writing lots of full paragraphs down the page, like when I am journaling, rather than when I am outlining. So now you are writing your first line. You will see that the Writing Guide (WG) keeps expanding as you write. You can even write a little past the right edge of it and it will expand to encompass your words. I have found it is smart to let it catch up to you as you go. You can start a word within the Writing Guide and write past the edge and OneNote will keep up pretty well. However, if you write too fast and start a new word to the right of the Writing Guide, where it hasn’t caught up to you yet, then OneNote will start a new Writing Guide there which will interfere with your existing one. Be careful not to dot your ‘I’s or cross your ‘t’s until the Writing Guide has caught up to you either or they will end up in separate, overlapping Writing Guides.
Figure 6: I actually had to write really fast to get it to mess up like this. SP-1 keeps up much better than the retail version.
So you are writing along, still on the first line. You will notice that the Writing Guide stops keeping up with you about 2/3 of the way across the screen. Now you have to take things into your own hands. If you stop writing for a second the Writing Guide will generally display it’s drag bar at the top with the double arrow in the upper right corner. You should now use this to force the Writing Guide to the width you really want it to be. (If the bar doesn’t appear, a good trick is to flip your stylus around to the eraser end and tap it somewhere outside of
the Writing Guide.) I generally widen the Writing Guide to the second vertical line from the right edge of the screen. (This is because OneNote has a tendency to continue to expand the Writing Guide if you aren’t careful and this gives room for it to expand a little without the edge disappearing under the edge of your window. More about that later.) As you are dragging it out you will see a dotted line appear about 1/16” outside the edge of the Writing Guide. Ignore that dotted line. (I think it is only there for those people who like to set the Writing Guides to be invisible and therefore can’t see where the ‘grain’ is.) Watch the grey area of the Writing Guide itself. OK, I know a lot of thinking has gone into just writing 2/3 of the first line but, believe me, this will make it much easier to write all the rest. Besides, it just becomes second nature after a while, like always carving away from yourself. Now, you are almost ready to finish the first line. As you approach the end keep your eye on the vertical line that is one grid space in from the right edge of the Writing Guide. You want to Figure 8: write as close up to this line as possible without going over. If you get to within about ¼ of a grid space of that line then OneNote will drop down the next line of the Writing Guide. This is so what you write will be included as part of the same paragraph as the first line. If you don’t, and just start writing on the next line even though the Writing Guide hasn’t dropped down, then OneNote will treat it as a separate paragraph. If you don’t have just the right sized word to exactly fill the space you can just write a squiggle to fill the space (Figure 8). Don’t just draw a straight line. If you are in the ‘Create Both Handwriting and Drawings’ mode OneNote will think a straight line is a drawing and create a separate drawing box which will interfere with your existing Writing Guide. You can go back later and erase the squiggles while you are letting your brain rest. So what happens if you go past that vertical line I told you to keep you eye on? This is when OneNote tends to expand your Writing Guide further to the right. You can get away with going maybe half a space over. OneNote will expand the Writing Guide and you can drag it back to the desired width without messing up your text. But if you go much further than that, when you resize the Writing Guide it will force that offending word to the next line. If you have already written more lines below it then they will be forced down and that one word will appear on a line all by itself. Not too very pretty. This is why it is important to place that right edge of the Writing Guide exactly on one of the vertical grid lines. I have found it is best to always drag that darn right edge of the Writing Guide back where it belongs. If you don’t it gets hard to tell where you should be ending the line and you will keep inadvertently extending the Writing Guide just a little further over and over again. Fortunately, SP-1 is much better about this. I haven’t had a Writing Guide do the right edge crawl on me since I upgraded. Wow, all that just for one darn line of handwriting! It really will become second nature quickly. Don’t worry. Besides, would you have wanted me to wait till you were five paragraphs along before I told you how to end a line. Remember how I had you start that first line one grid space to the right of the left edge of the Writing Guide? Well, for the second and subsequent lines you will start writing right at
the left edge. See how this gives you that indented first line look? As you start more paragraphs this way you will see it is much easier to see where one paragraph ends and another begins. Just like in grammar school! A lot of people forget this when they are writing on a computer, and if you don’t do the ‘tap first then indent’ trick then you won’t be able to get this effect.
Oh my gosh, you’ve written a whole paragraph. Now it’s time to start a new paragraph. Easy, just don’t write all the way up to the secret line on the last line of your previous paragraph. And don’t put in the squiggle either. OneNote won’t drop down the Writing Guide but don’t worry. Even though your writing won’t be part of the previous paragraph OneNote will still extend the Writing Guide itself down AFTER you start writing. Both paragraphs will still be included in the same Writing Guide. I have found that you can even skip one rule line down and OneNote will still automatically insert a blank line and merge them all into the same Writing Guide.
Figure 10: Using the eraser to make an unwanted Writing Guide extension go away.
So here is the rule: If OneNote extends the Writing Guide down before you start writing on the next line then that next line will be included in the same paragraph. But if it doesn’t extend the Writing Guide down and you start writing on Figure 12: Another example of some paragraphs with manually Figure 13: Erasing the the next line anyway indented first lines. squiggles. then OneNote extends the Writing Guide down after you start writing and it will be a separate paragraph. This is what throws most people, especially those who have left the Writing Guide’s set to the lightest setting which is essentially invisible. They write on the next line and expect OneNote to just read their minds and know when they do or don’t want to start a new paragraph. You have to trick OneNote into making the space for you to continue the paragraph or make sure it doesn’t so it will create a new paragraph. But what if you had to write all the way up to the secret line because you just had so much to say and OneNote dropped down the Writing Guide but now you want to start a new paragraph? Do the eraser trick again. Flip your stylus around and tap the eraser anywhere below the Writing Guide. The extended part of the Writing Guide will disappear and you can now start your new paragraph. Very simple. Very easy.
Intricate Wood Carving, or Outlines in Handwriting: Once you have written a paragraph, even if it is just one line, you can now start creating an outline in handwriting. Remember how earlier I said to only indent your paragraphs a maximum of one grid space? Just for grins, indent your next paragraph 1 ½ grid spaces. Notice how the gray area of the Writing Guide now lines up exactly with the left most part of your first word there? You have just indented a paragraph! You can use the tap-and-indent trick to indent the first line of this paragraph too, but only do it one grid space over, as previously explained. You can actually indent your subFigure 14: paragraphs / sub-headings further than 1 ½ grid space. I have found that you can indent a sub-heading up to 5 grid spaces. If you indent it 6 or more spaces then OneNote will create an entirely new Writing Guide. However, since it won’t display the drag bar immediately, it will look as if you just have a deeply indented sub-heading. I’m sure this has thrown more than a few people. Keep this in mind: Once you have indented a certain outline level a certain depth, then all other paragraphs at that outline level will be indented to the same depth. If you aren’t careful it may look as if you have lines on certain outline levels but they could really be on others. Let’s say you do this:
You start the first paragraph at the second grid line as I recommended earlier. You start the second paragraph at the 7th vertical line or indented 5 spaces from the previous paragraph. If you start the third paragraph anything less than 5 spaces in from the first then it will be set at the first outline level. What it will look like, if you don’t have bullets turned on, is that you have text at the first outline level, then the third, then the second. Which is not allowed in OneNote. What you will really have is text at the first, second, then first outline levels (Figure 15:
). Usually, if you are taking quick notes, and you know you are going to be creating an outline, you will want to turn on bullets. Actually, it’s not a mode that you turn on or off, but if you set your first paragraph to have a bullet then all the subsequent and directly connected ones will be bulleted too. If you skip a line, as I have mentioned is possible earlier, then it will not automatically continue to be bulleted. It is also pretty easy to select an entire Writing Guide or page and tap the bullet button in the toolbar to put bullets on all the paragraphs at once. Wooden Chains, or Rearranging your Outlines: In wood carving, the ultimate test of skill and dexterity is to carve a piece of wood into two or more parts that are still connected, like links in a chain, or a ball that is contained within a cage. (If you try it, don’t use a branch of a tree. The heartwood is the most fragile part and the darn links will split right down the middle. But that’s another story.) OneNote is an excellent wood carver. It can move parts all over the place and still keep them connected. However, you have to watch what you are doing and not give it a branch with brittle heartwood.
I’m sure you already know that you can use the paragraph drag handles to indent paragraphs or rearrange them so I won’t go into that here. But I will list some of the things you should watch out for.
First, OneNote keeps track of those indent depths I told you about for each Writing Guide independently. So you could have something indented 4 spaces in one Writing Guide and it would be at the second outline level (bottom of Figure 15) while something indented the same 3 spaces in another Writing Guide could be at the third outline level (top of Figure 15). If you merge those two Writing Guide’s together by dragging either the Writing Guide drag bar (Figure Figure 17: 16) or one of the parent paragraph’s drag handles then the stationary Writing Guide is the one whose memorized indentation depths will be used (Figure 17). That is, the one you are dragging will give up it’s outline level depth settings and take on those of the stationary Writing Guide that is being merged into. This can make you think that your outline levels have been messed up. Another way this can throw you is if you indent levels two and three by 2 spaces each but then indent level four to 4 spaces deeper than level three. Later, if you drag a level three paragraph with it’s level four sub-paragraphs to the left, the level four becomes a level three and is now only indented by 2 spaces. If you are consistent in the depths you use and keep in mind that you can’t indent more than one outline level at a time, no matter how deep you make it look, then you won’t have a problem. Second, If you haven’t already established an indentation depth for a particular outline level then OneNote defaults to about 1¼ grid space per level. What’s odd is, if you try to start a new level only 1¼ spaces indented then it won’t work. OneNote will just create a new line at the same outline level but leave a blank space at the beginning of the line like my tap-and-indent trick. The 1¼ space indent is only used when you drag a paragraph to the right and that is the first paragraph in the Writing Guide to ever be moved to that outline level. This can easily happen if you take all your notes down in a straight line and then later decide to drag them into an outline. (It also happens if you switch to the selection tool, place the cursor at the beginning of the paragraph, then press the tab key either on your keyboard on the TIP, but I don’t think you would go to that much trouble.) Once an outline level’s depth is established in this way it is set for the rest of the Writing Guide just as before. However, if you drag it back and there are no other sub-headings at that outline level left in the Writing Guide then it is possible to reestablish the depth of that outline level to whatever you want (within the 5 space limit) by starting to write at the desired depth under the paragraph you just drug back. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to work if you had originally established the outline level’s indentation depth by hand. In that case, if you drag it back then try to write a sub-paragraph under it at a different depth it will act just as if there were a previous paragraph already at that depth. Too far to the left and you won’t really get a child paragraph, just a sibling with some space in front of it. Too far to -6-
the right and you will get a child paragraph but it will look as if it is a deeper outline level than it really is because it, too, will have some space in front of it. Finally, as mentioned before, if you merge one Writing Guide with another then the merging Writing Guide gives up it’s depth settings. If you later change your mind and drag it back out into a separate Writing Guide it will not remember it’s old depth settings. It will retain the ones it inherited from the other Writing Guide. This can actually be used to your advantage to clean up your indent levels and Figure 19: make them consistent throughout all your Writing Guide’s. Just drag one Writing Guide into another, let up your stylus or mouse button, then drag it right back out again. If you are using this trick to clean up several paragraphs at once you will need to select all of the text using the text select tool in order to drag it all out together. Once you have selected all the text you can use the paragraph handle of the first parent to drag it all together. Even successive siblings of that parent will complacently come along as long as they Figure 18: are selected (Figure 18 - Figure 20).
Wood Chips, or Conclusion: Now you can get your merit badge. You have learned that by making the grain visible, using the right tools, and always carving consistently with the grain rather than against it you can easily carve out some great meeting or class notes without getting behind trying to figure out what the heck OneNote is doing. Just don’t use sharp tools or you will scratch your screen. It should also be noted that all of the spacing mentioned in this article was determined using an Acer C300 with a 14.1” screen. If you have a smaller screen you may notice that OneNote uses slightly different spacing on your Tablet PC.
Splinters, or Copyright Notice: This article is Copyright 2004 by Grant S. Robertson. It may not be reprinted, copied to a web site, or anything else without express written permission. To ask for such permission contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will probably say, “Yes.” -7-
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