Working in a business means creating, following, and updating procedures. Flexibility becomes one of OneNote’s biggest flaws in business settings because of the need for consistency and templates. Luckily, the desktop client of OneNote has template features which can help standardize how new pages look and feel. This helps drive consistency across notes.
Making Page Templates
The first step in creating a template is to create the master page. This format will be copied for each new page. The master page design is up to you and it can contain rich content and formatting. I recommend keeping your master page template simple. I also suggest using tables and bold formatting.
Putting a simple table at the top of the page as an information section gives structure and a starting point for your coworkers. I recommend including fields to help give the page clear context. Some of my usual fields are Added By, Project, Date Added, and Links. Do not expect unaccustomed users to have any context when they are asked to use a template. The more structure you give to your template, the easier it will be to understand. Ideally, the template will be self-explanatory.
In the body of the page, it is important to give a rough framework for the layout of information. Remember, the purpose of using page templates is to give consistency to your notes. Using page templates should help people find information quickly and easily across similar pages. For meeting notes, I recommend bold headings for attendees, agenda, links, notes, and action items. Other helpful sections or table items might include team members, timelines, documents, and tags.
OneNote has some standard styles, which can aid in communicating page structure to your coworkers. Unlike the other Office programs, OneNote does not allow you to customize the styles. However, OneNote add-ons such as OneTastic do add custom styles. I would advise you to just accept the default styles. The point is not appearance but consistency across all of your notes.
Using section headers makes navigating through your notes easier because sections can be collapsed with the drag handle. Collapsing less important sections also helps keep vital information front and center without leaving out helpful details. Additionally, using consistent headings can be useful when organizing and summarizing a section or group of pages.
Saving and Setting a Template
Once your master page has been created, it needs to be saved as a template. Under the insert tab, you will find the Template button. This opens the template pane. At the bottom of this pane, there is an option to save your current page as a template.
After a template page is saved, clicking the check box allows that page to be used as a template for all new pages within the same section. This will also save a copy of your master page into OneNote and create another copy for every new page. OneNote does not reference the page you used to create the master. Therefore, any edits to that page will not be copied to new pages. Every time you make updates to your master page, you must save it again as a template page.
Due to updates and changes not being dynamic, I recommend adding revisions to the end of your custom page templates. Numbering or other forms of labeling will help you find the latest, most up-to-date template between many similarly named templates. Also, embed the template revision into the master page. This will allow your coworkers to know if they need to update to a new template for their OneNote program.
Shortcomings with Templates
In typical OneNote fashion, templates are not dynamic in any way. While saving page templates is a terrific way to drive consistency when using OneNote, the templates and default new pages do not sync with the notebooks. Each user must add your master page as a template and set it to be the default new page template.
This can be a serious pain when using any of the OneNote apps because none of them support page templates. On top of that, if you use OneNote on more than one computer, you will have to set it up for each computer you use. This is not a fundamental problem. If you have many different templates, it can rapidly become tedious.
An easy workaround is to keep the latest master page at the top of a section. Your coworkers can copy and paste the page. This helps if they are on an unsupported device. Ideally, everyone would just set up the templates and defaults at the beginning. This will help avoid issues in the future but we all know how everyone wants to do their own thing.
It is unclear if Microsoft plans to add template functionality into their other OneNote apps. So far, the OneNote team has been very opaque as to what features they are bringing over and what their roadmap consists of. Many recent features have been centered around educational uses and less about core features.
Templates are a terrific way to keep your team on the same page and speaking a consistent organizational language. Templates fit well into a Kanban style of workflow. Try adding them into your notebooks today and see if they work for you!