Good Debating Is Good Writing: 16 Common Inefficiencies

Debate is a speaking activity, certainly, but it is also a writing activity. Good constructive speeches rely in large part on well-written prepared materials, but rebuttals are where the real writing occurs. To deliver a powerful rebuttal, students must verbalize their arguments clearly and persuasively—but do so extemporaneously, without a script. Good speaking, like good writing, must be clear, concise, and well organized: the content needs to be allowed to shine through.

As part of this summer’s Hoya Spartan Scholars program, students were given an opportunity to transcribe and edit their rebuttal speeches. The transcription process is tedious—it takes a lot of time and concentration to accurately and completely transcribe a debate speech—but the payout is substantial. By transforming a spoken speech into a written text, students can more rigorously assess the content of their speeches and dramatically improve their efficiency and language choices. And by doing so, the connection between good speaking and good writing becomes obvious.

In the course of editing students’ transcriptions, one thing became abundantly clear: debaters do not communicate efficiently. Most rebuttals overflow with filler language, distracting sentence structures, and imprecise word choices. This undermines persuasiveness, of course, but it also directly sacrifices content by wasting precious speech time. The goal of a debater should be to effectively communicate as many important arguments as possible to the judge within the time constraints. Doing so requires not just speed but efficiency. And while gains in speaking speed are certainly valuable, improvements in efficiency can be much more dramatic.

A list of 16 common efficiency problems is provided below the fold. Did we miss one? Share it in the comments.

1. “In The Round” (and “In The Debate”)

Examples: “We access the biggest impact in the round—nuclear war causes extinction!” “They have no offense in the debate—any risk of our impact outweighs!”

Yes, this is a debate round. No, the judge does not need to be reminded. A related inefficiency is “on the flow”: “They have no offense on the flow—any risk of our impact outweighs!” or “There is no ink on the flow here—they cold conceded it!” Obviously, everything is “on the flow”—there is no need to point that out.

2. “Solve Back” (and “Check Back,” “Link Back,” “Turn Back,” etc.)

Examples: “We solve back for their economy impact.” “Our interpretation checks back their limits offense.”

Huh? What does “solve back” even mean? This one is totally stupid and annoyingly pervasive.

3. Long Introductions

Examples: “I have three answers—my first argument will be that the counterplan solves this warrant.” “First of all, we meet their interpretation.”

Substructure and numbering can be a powerful way to improve flowability and efficiency. Used in this way, however, it is annoying and a waste of speech time.

4. “Things Like” (and “Things Such As”)

Examples: “The DA turns the case—it accesses things like war and the economy.” “Capitalism makes things such as environmental destruction and global warming inevitable.”

Just take those extra words out. The thing being discussed doesn’t “access things like war,” it “accesses war.”

5. “As To Why”

Examples: “There’s no reason as to why the alternative solves the case.” “Our interpretation captures all the reasons as to why their interpretation solves limits.”

A classic example of filler language, “as to why” is a phrase that serves no purpose. Instead of “there’s no reason as to why the alternative solves the case,” just say “there’s no reason the alternative solves the case”—or better yet, “the alternative doesn’t solve the case.” Whenever possible, speak clearly and in active voice—say what you mean instead of dancing around it.

6. “The Fact That”

Examples: “The fact that our interpretation gives them ground means you should err aff on reasonability.” “The fact that economic collapse causes war means our impact outweighs.”

This is another classic example of filler language that transforms clear sentences into passive-voiced mumbo jumbo. Instead of saying “the fact that our interpretation gives them ground means you should err aff on reasonability,” say “our interpretation gives them ground—err aff on reasonability” or “err aff on reasonability because our interpretation gives them ground.”

7. “Probably”

Example: “The DA probably turns the case because economic decline causes war.” “Our link turn probably outweighs the link because it is more specific to the plan.”

A relatively recent addition to the pantheon of annoying debate inefficiencies, the word “probably” has taken center stage in many students’ speeches and is now used as an all-purpose preface to every argument advanced in the debate. If the intended meaning is “almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell,” the word “probably” is appropriate. If not, it is meaningless filler.

8. “Default To” (and “Defer To”)

Examples: “The fact that our interpretation solves back their offense probably means you should default to it.” “The fact that they have no offense means you should defer to our DA.”

Often used in conjunction with “probably” and “the fact that,” this phrase plays an essential part in the construction of many of debate’s most inefficient sentences. Beyond its simple inelegance, this phrasing makes very little sense: no one says “default to” in everyday conversation. When is the last time you heard someone say “I don’t really like coffee so I’ll default to having the orange juice”?

9. “Go To The X Debate” (and “Drop Down To The X Debate,” “Drop Down To X,” etc.)

Examples: “Drop down to the solvency debate.” “Now go to the permutation debate.”

Signposting is good, but debaters frequently fall victim to over-narration. Visual directions in particular are unnecessary and inefficient. (For a hilarious critique of this style of writing as manifested in scholarly publication, check out Geoff Dwyer’s “An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece” in the New York Times.)

10. “Extend Across”

Examples: “Extend across the 2AC #1—we meet.” “They have cold conceded our impact—extend across that economic decline causes war.”

Another visual direction that adds nothing to a speech, this one is quite pervasive. Eliminating “across” is certainly an improvement, but even the word “extend” is unnecessary. Instead of instructing the judge to “extend 2AC #1,” just make the argument contained in 2AC #1. By developing the argument, the speaker is performatively “extending” it—an explicit instruction is not necessary.

11. “On This Question”

Examples: “Cross-ex was embarrassing on this question.” “Our evidence is surprisingly good on this question.”

Who asked a question? This one has become more popular in recent years and the cross-ex manifestation (“cross-ex was embarrassing on this question!”) is particularly pervasive. In general, this phrasing is used to conceal vacuousness and scarcity of content: “our evidence is surprisingly good on this question” doesn’t mean anything more than “our cards are good, judge.”

12. “Always Going To Win” (and “Never Going To Win”)

Examples: “We’re always going to win that the economy is strong now.” “They’re never going to win a link turn because we control uniqueness.”

Debating about possible ballots is useful and effective: there’s a reason that “even if they win X, we win Y and Y is more important than X” is a classic framework for good rebuttals. The addition of “always” transforms this technique into wasteful boasting and reflects an unrealistic assessment of the round.

13. “In A World” (and “At The Point Where,” “At The Point When,” etc.)

Examples: “The economy will never be able to survive in a world of nuclear war.” “In a world where we win uniqueness, there’s only a risk of a link.” “At the point where we win uniqueness, there’s only a risk of a link.”

Another classic example of filler language, the phrase “in a world” adds words but not meaning to a speech. Instead of “the economy will never be able to survive in a world of nuclear war,” say “the economy won’t survive a nuclear war” or, even better, “nuclear war will devastate the economy.”

14. “Right Now” (and “In The Status Quo”)

Examples: “Poverty is not being solved right now.” “China is not pursuing space weapons in the status quo.”

These phrases make explicit something that was already understood implicitly. “Poverty is not being solved” implies that poverty is not being solved now; in the same way, “China is not pursuing space weapons” implies that China is not pursuing space weapons in the status quo.

15. “Actually Going To Be Able To” (and “Actually”)

Examples: “They’re not actually going to be able to solve for the economy because nuclear war collapses infrastructure.” “The disad actually turns the case because economic decline makes war more likely.”

A first cousin of “probably,” the word “actually” is deployed in similar ways. Frequently, the phrase “actually going to be able to” is deployed to transform simple, straightforward sentences into passive-voiced obfuscations. Instead of “they’re not actually going to be able to solve for the economy because nuclear war collapses infrastructure,” say “nuclear war undermines the economy because it collapses infrastructure.”

16. “Which Means”

Examples: “The United States has a strong military and the world’s largest economy which means that hegemony is resilient and sustainable.” “Predictability is the biggest internal link to limits which means that our interpretation solves limits better.”

The most powerful enabler of passive voice sentence constructions, the phrase “which means” is added to connect two statements. The clear, straightforward sentence is thereby reversed and transformed into a passive-voiced monstrosity. Instead of “the U.S. has a strong military and the world’s largest economy which means that hegemony is resilient and sustainable,” say “hegemony is resilient and sustainable because the U.S. has a strong military and the world’s largest economy.”

9 thoughts on “Good Debating Is Good Writing: 16 Common Inefficiencies

  1. gstatue

    On #10, could you flesh out what you mean by a performative extension? Or rather, how to implement this. It seems that judges would welcome an outright signal to extend something across on the flow, especially in a techy, line-by-line portion of the debate, magnified by the time pressure of a rebuttal.

    1. Bill Batterman Post author

      Conceptually, "extend" just means "give us credit for this argument again". When you say "extend across 2AC #1 that we meet their interpretation," you're saying "give us credit for the argument again that we meet their interpretation." You haven't made an argument, though; you've simply referenced one that was made earlier. Instead, you should say "we meet their interpretation" and then explain why and/or answer the other team's responses. In the process of doing so, you've given the judge a reason to give you credit for the argument again.

      Simpler version: "Extend", by itself, is a request and not an argument. You should always be making arguments. If you say "extend across" ten times in a 1AR or 2NR, that's 10 seconds that you spent not making an argument.

  2. CopperPlatypus

    Anything along the lines of "what you're going to see", "that's when we see the impacts happen", "judge, what you're going to have to see."

  3. jbrown2140

    Glad to see someone else finds #7 ("probably") annoying as well. One additional observation re: "probably" – not only is it inefficient, it has become a very popular crutch for debaters who do not have a warrant for a given claim. "Probably" gets used as a way of saying "do you really think I *need* to explain why that's true?" Also crucial here is a certain arrogant vocal inflection. This is also popular in cross-examination as a means of question-dodging.

  4. Bill Batterman Post author

    New one: ENTIRETY — e.g., "turns THE ENTIRETY of the case," "takes out THE ENTIRETY of the link," etc. Especially notable for the emphasis placed on the word entirety. #swagalos

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