Universal Descriptors

Universal Descriptors promote consistent wording and efficient thinking across your Knowledge Base.

Soren Bjornstad avatar
Written by Soren Bjornstad
Updated over a week ago

When taking notes using the Concept-Descriptor Framework, some descriptors appear frequently, even across concepts that come from completely different subjects – almost universally. We call these Universal Descriptors and notate them with a prefixed ~ symbol.


When learning about a system, it's useful to understand how it works:

When learning about a tool, it's useful to understand the ~Problem Being Solved by that tool:

When learning about a problem, it's useful to understand the most common ~Solution to the problem:

Why use Universal Descriptors?

Universal Descriptors are helpful for a few reasons:

  • You don't really understand something until you understand it in multiple ways. Encouraging yourself to add multiple Universal Descriptors helps you challenge your own understanding of an idea. You could also add normal descriptors, but having specific ones you regularly use makes it easier to think of them.

  • Being consistent with the phrasing of a descriptor helps you avoid a common problem with flashcards, in which you accidentally use slightly different wording on each card and then end up memorizing the answer based on these irrelevant details rather than based on an understanding of the actual concept. You can see that in the example above, we always use ~Problem Being Solved rather than also using “What problem does this solve?” or “How does this help?”

  • Consistency builds mental scripts that draw on these descriptors. For example, when trying to understand a new tool, you can ask yourself to understand its ~Problem Being Solved, ~Why Works, and ~How Works. Or when considering a position, you can ask yourself to understand the ~Argument For, ~Argument Against, and an ~Analogy.

How do I use Universal Descriptors?

Universal Descriptors, like other content in RemNote, are just Rems – they don't have any special status within the tool. We just think the idea of Universal Descriptors is too useful not to share with everyone!

Creating a Universal Descriptor

You can place Universal Descriptors anywhere in your Knowledge Base, but many people choose to group them under the Rem called ~ (to match the first character).

There are two ways you can write a Universal Descriptor: as a property, or as a normal Rem. When you make a Universal Descriptor into a property, it will automatically generate a flashcard when you reference it, without your needing to type ;; or similar, but you won't be able to add any additional details to the front of the flashcard. Property universal descriptors work great for attributes of a Concept that don't need further qualification, like ~Purpose, ~Abbreviation, or ~Why Works. With attributes like ~Example, where you might want to include multiple examples and qualify them (e.g., ~Example involving cheesemaking), you might prefer not to make them into properties.

Here's a demo of the difference:

To create a property Universal Descriptor, add it as a Rem under ~ and then use /pr to convert it to a property. To create a non-property Universal Descriptor, just add it as a Rem under ~ and leave it at that.

Using a Universal Descriptor

Just create a Rem Reference to it (in this example, we use non-property Universal Descriptors).

If you use Universal Descriptors extensively, the Universal Descriptors Quick-Input official plugin allows you to type simply ~ to insert a Universal Descriptor, rather than having to first open the reference search menu.

Getting Started with Universal Descriptors

A good way to jump-start your use of Universal Descriptors is to import our list of suggested descriptors (this will place them in the ~ Rem in your knowledge base). But don't stop there – since these are just Rems, you can customize them or create your own as you desire, group them into categories and color-code them, or even add new prefixes at the beginning. You should fine-tune your knowledge base to optimize your own thinking.

Templates vs. Universal Descriptors

If you're familiar with Templates, they may at first appear very similar to Universal Descriptors. Both templates and Universal Descriptors help create clean and consistent structures across many different Concepts. However, they have different ideal use cases.

Templates are useful when you have a bunch of concepts that follow the same pattern, and you want to ask the same questions (properties) about all of them. Things like chemical elements, algorithms, words in a foreign language, or biographical details of people are good examples here.

Universal descriptors are useful for abstract properties that cut across many different types of knowledge with different patterns. For instance, an ~Advantage would be relevant when talking about chemical elements as used in engineering, as well as political policies, productivity tools, and more.

It's valid and even common to have a property that is also a universal descriptor. For instance, if you're studying treatments for a disease, each treatment probably has ~Advantages, ~Disadvantages, a ~Why Works, and so on. You might choose to create a #Treatment template that includes each of these universal descriptors as a property.

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