Last night, Amy and Wendy came into my office frantic that they had lost many pages of a script they were writing when they attempted to cut and paste the text from OneNote 2003 to Word 2003.

Amy and Wendy had worked all day on a OneNote document, carefully pressing CTRL+S as they went along. They then cut a text selection from OneNote to paste into Word.

For whatever reason, the clipboard did not transfer to Word. They tried to paste it back into OneNote. Nothing.

Panicked at losing pages of work, they called me.  

Edit Undo would not help them. They assured me that they had been pressing CTRL+S all afternoon.

Only now, did we discover that CTRL+S in OneNote does nothing! It's not even an option!

I understand that the OneNote  model is supposed to be one of continuous saving, but it never occurred to me that Microsoft should not enable the CTRL+S feature to force a quick save.

My friend, Marc Orchant suggested that I might look at the backup directory for an interim backup file or temp file, however I found that to be empty, too. I tried clipboard manager, with no success either.

I still think that OneNote is a valuable product and I will continue to use it. from a peace of mind perspective, I'd like to see the ability to initiate a save that is consistent with almost all other Microsoft applications. I want to trust that my saved work is indeed safe.

Discussion/Comments (11):

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work


Ouch! I've went through a similar experience with OneNote 2003. Now I primarily take my notes in other programs, and use OneNote for an information archive--plus I always create a back up copy.

I'd love to see a little more consistency and stability in this area as well.

I was once in love with OneNote. Now, however, the confidence has eroded a bit. I feel safer putting much of the same type of information in MS Journal.

Posted at 04/03/2007 12:49:53 by John Taylor

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

It sounds to me like OneNote did exactly what it was supposed to do... and auto-saved again *after* the text was cut.

In this model, a quick Ctrl+S wouldn't have saved the day, because the auto-save would still kick in after the text was removed from the document.

Posted at 04/03/2007 19:16:07 by Chris

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

(may I sugest using copy/paste and not cut/paste? just my two cents ...)

Posted at 04/04/2007 6:13:20 by mal disposto

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

You can control the frequency and the number of backups that One Note performs. By default, it backups once a day and only keeps 2 copies.

You can change these settings in Tools -> Options -> Backup. There is also an option in there to do an immediate backup.

Posted at 04/04/2007 7:44:01 by James Arendt

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

Eric, that's terrible and I'm sorry we let you and Amy and Wendy down, although I have to say it's a bit of a mystery. You're right that Ctrl-S is not needed in OneNote. Ctrl-S actually does force a save (because we couldn't have it do anything else given many people's reflexive use of it), but because a save is happening every 30sec or less anyway it is completely unnecessary.

I think what may have happened here is a perfect storm of unlikely happenings.

First, doing a Cut rather than a Copy to get the text out of OneNote put Amy and Wendy's information in a precarious state. By doing a "Cut" you are telling OneNote "I do not want this anymore". So OneNote believes the information is gone. Of course at that point you can still Undo, but the information is not being looked after by any process.

OneNote performs a backup of your notes daily (by default), backing up only files that have changed in the last 24 hrs. It will keep the last two versions of these files. This is not intended to be an alternative to Undo. It is meant to guard against data loss where the files you have get deleted for some reason, or you accidentally delete some of your (day old or more) notes and don't notice (i.e. do not use Undo) but later want them back. The backup model assumes that you will use Undo if you delete something by accident you just wrote today (not a perfect assumption).

Now, when you pasted into Word, I have no idea why the Paste didn't work. I'd have to see the files involved to see if something weird was going on (such as the paste location in Word would not accept text for whatever reason).

As to why Undo stopped working in OneNote, the likely cause is that there are a small set of things you can do which cause the Undo stack for a page to get cleared. Amy or Wendy clicked around to other pages or did some kind of notebook level change (moved pages or something like that) which is something that will cause the Undo stack to get cleared. OneNote actually maintains a separate Undo stack for each page - you can see this if you make an edit on one page, go to another page, make an edit, then go back to the first and use Ctrl-Z. You can undo the change on the first page without having to Undo the change that happened later on page 2 (you cannot do this in Word for example). There is also the "navigation stack" (the back and forward history buttons). The forward list gets cleared when you make changes to pages.

Bottom line is something weird happened (the paste failing) and because a cut was done rather than copy, and the edits were all done inside the backup time window, and (I guess) some kind of actions were taken in OneNote afterward perhaps in a panic that made the Undo stack get cleared you're out of luck. I am truly sorry for Amy and Wendy.

FWIW, my ex-sister-in-law had a similar experience with Word when writing her master's thesis. First, she had no backup (oh so common). She had been writing all day. She was trying to start a new sentence with a capital A and as far as I can tell she missed the Shift key and slipped onto Ctrl. Ctrl-A of course selects the entire document contents in Word, and because Word defaults to replacing a selection when you type, the very next key she typed (she didn't even notice this at 60wpm) replaced her entire document with that letter. She called me in a panic and asked what to do because Word had "deleted her entire document except what she had just typed". I told her to use Undo, but because she thought her work was somehow still in Word she said she had quit Word and of course said Yes when Word asked if she wanted to Save her work. At that point she was toast. It may be obvious to you an me what her error was, but because her mental model was different she was taking actions that made sense to her.

There've been experiments with trying to solve this problem (that people can inadvertently lose their work in these complex interplays) over the years. OneNote took the approach of always saving to avoid the problem where you have to decide to keep your work. That was mainly done for ease of use and of course it is many people's favorite feature - not having to name or locate files. And with daily backups the thinking was that at least you can't lose anything older than a day if you do mess up and don't use Undo. That means there is a day long window for the problem to occur though (as Amy and Wendy found). And of course information can be lost if you delete something, don’t notice, and then keep using the notebook for several more days, unless you modify the defaults for backup and are willing to use a lot more drive space than we thought we could force on people.

There've been experiments with saving a backup constantly, but if you don't want these to fill your drive over time they eventually have to start overwriting each other, so a high backup frequency can spell problems if you don't notice the problem soon enough (all your backups will have the error too).

Other ideas include saving the entire undo stack in a document or at least on your machine even if you close the application. This is promising but saving (in document) can cause privacy issues (if you mail the doc to someone else and they use Ctrl-Z), and saving outside the document means the edits can get divorced from the file (such as if you access the file from another machine). Even more radical is to treat everything you do as a giant database that records all the transactions. This is fine for relatively simple edits but Undo is also much harder to make work in all cases than you might think given the combination of things that can be done in an application of reasonable complexity and things that can be done out of order that might affect each other (e.g. add a hyperlink on a page to something that is later deleted), so it isn't always possible to maintain the undo stack through every conceivable user activity.

OK, enough excuses. I am really sorry.


Posted at 04/04/2007 10:40:19 by Chris Pratley (MS)

re: Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

Chris, thank you for the explanation of what's going on with Windows clipboard issues and OneNote 2003/Word. I will continue to encourage Amy & Wendy to save often and to use Copy/Paste when transferring between programs rather than cut & paste. I get it. The hard part, from an end-user perspective, is that it lowers trust in software and makes user's hesitant to use it to the fullest advantage. At least this wasn't a master's thesis.

Amy and Wendy continue to use OneNote 2003 with their Robotics team. It's been fun to watch their use of it expand into other areas of application as well.

Thanks again to you and the OneNote team and thank you for your encouragement.


Posted at 04/04/2007 11:39:20 by Eric Mack

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

My thanks also to Chris for the level setting to help us have the right model in our minds about how One Note works. That, in itself, helps provide a level of comfort for those of us that are lucky enough to have read it. In fact, seems like something that should be included in the documentation for those that care to "dig in".

One possibility for a partial solution (assuming security works together with it) might be to maintain logging of changes, even if only text-based. Another might be to maintain clips of recent cuts and deletes.

Or, simply to allow the user to force a page version to be kept like a benchmark. I have to admit, though, that I only skimmed to satisfy my curiousity, so maybe these comments are irrelevant or don't fit.

Anyway, thanks to both of you for the warning and the explanation of how things work.

Posted at 04/09/2007 13:47:13 by Bob Russell

Backend Version Control

Backend the file store onto Sharepoint or Alfresco with version control. You can even run Alfresco on the local machine. I track all my important documents like this in Subversion.

Every save event will generate a new version. Not sure how well this will work with OneNote but you can always delete old versions.

Posted at 04/09/2007 15:15:57 by Nicholas Lee

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

I'm also a little concerned about issues like this. I like to save important onenote sections as .doc files from time to time. File --> Save As

Posted at 10/20/2007 16:38:00 by Dave

Be careful with OneNote and saving your work

It seems like I can only use the undo button to undo the last minute or two of work, unlike in word where you can undo every step since you opened a document. Can I fix this?

Posted at 01/04/2008 22:12:00 by Eric

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