I have recently been thinking a lot about plans. When I tried to formalize a set of plan writing suggestions for current debaters, it led me to undertake what became an unprecedentedly thorough (I assume) exploration of the history of plans in policy debate. I think the resulting series of articles and its accompanying research is worth reading in full:
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 1: The Early History
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 2: The Plan in the Age of the Disadvantage
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 3: Extra-Topicality
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 4: Topical and Plan-Inclusive Counterplans
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 5: “Normal Means” PICs and Process Counterplans
- The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 6: Policy Testing, Planicality, and Hypothesis Planning
- Plan Writing In Policy Debate: Example Plans From 1970 to 2021
- “‘Planning’ Your Way To Victory”: Plan Writing Advice From 1982
- An Analysis of Plan Texts from the Elimination Rounds of the 2021 NDCA and TOC
However, I’m sure many students would rather skip to the tl;dr, please-give-me-a-checklist version. Below the fold is my attempt to provide that kind of formalized plan writing guide, although it still is not quite a plug-and-play checklist. As is often the case, it’s not that simple.
When crafting a plan, it is important to first reflect on two foundational strategic questions:
- What (if any) “desirable” (from the affirmative’s perspective) negative strategies should the plan attempt to invite?
- What (if any) “undesirable” (from the affirmative’s perspective) negative strategies should the plan attempt to deny?
Invitation and denial are two tactics the affirmative can use to control negative ground. To “invite” a negative argument means to clearly offer it to the negative. The more common affirmative instinct is to dodge arguments that seem threatening — and for some affirmatives, all arguments seem threatening. However, it is important to remember that the negative will say something in the debate. It is often more strategic for the affirmative to nudge the negative in a particular direction than to attempt to deny them any ground.
When confronted with a “deny everything” approach, negatives often become much more unpredictable. This can make it more difficult for the affirmative to prepare, and it often decreases the number of times the affirmative gets to debate a particular argument/strategy. Over time, this can significantly dampen the “repetitions benefit” that affirmatives otherwise accrue from debating their case so much more often than their negative opponents do.
If the negative is instead nudged to read the arguments that were invited, the affirmative will be well-prepared and well-rehearsed to answer them. What to invite is therefore just as important as what to dodge. Balancing the two considerations is essential to strategic plan writing.
In order to craft the most strategic plan, the affirmative must consider all of the ramifications of each of their plan writing choices. There are eleven major strategic considerations:
1. Topicality — is the plan a topical example of the resolution? Does it meet a defensible/reasonable interpretation of all parts of the resolution? Can the affirmative defeat each expected topicality argument, including “extra-topicality” and “effects topicality”?
2. Agent Counterplan Competition — does the plan create or avoid competition with particular agent counterplans? What competitive agent counterplans can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those counterplans?
3. Plan-Inclusive Counterplan Competition — does the plan create or avoid competition with particular plan-inclusive counterplans? What competitive PICs can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those PICs?
4. Process/Mechanism Counterplan Competition — does the plan create or avoid competition with particular process counterplans? What competitive process counterplans (including plan-contingent counterplans) can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those counterplans?
5. Word PIC Competition — does the plan create or avoid competition with particular word PICs? What competitive word PICs can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those word PICs?
6. “Intrinsic” Disadvantage Links — does the plan link to, dodge the link, or turn the link to particular “intrinsic” (plan-specific) disadvantages? What intrinsic disadvantages can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those disadvantages?
7. “Process-Based” Disadvantage Links — does the plan link to, dodge the link, or turn the link to particular “process-based” (political/procedural) disadvantages? What process-based disadvantages can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those disadvantages?
8. Solvency — does the plan solve the internal link(s) to the advantage(s)? If pressed, can the affirmative defend the solvency and workability of the plan? If pressed, can the affirmative prove that the plan “accesses” their solvency/solvency advocate evidence?
9. Circumvention — does the plan “link to” or dodge circumvention arguments? What circumvention arguments can be read against the plan? If pressed, can the affirmative defend the plan against all circumvention attacks?
10. Kritiks/Framework — does the plan link to or dodge particular kritik arguments? What plan-specific kritik arguments can be read against the plan? How well does the plan align with the affirmative’s framework arguments against particular kritiks? How well does it align with the affirmative’s overall strategy against particular kritiks? Does the plan improve or undermine the affirmative’s strategic position against particular kritiks?
11. Theory/Procedurals — does the plan “link to” or dodge particular theory arguments or procedurals? What theoretical/procedural arguments (plan flaw, agent specification, implementation specification, vagueness, etc.) can be read against the plan? Can the affirmative defeat each of those arguments?
Establishing Strategic Priorities
Each plan writing decision introduces benefits and costs. Decisions often require “zero sum” tradeoffs — e.g., crafting a more topical plan might introduce additional vulnerabilities against plan-inclusive counterplans, but crafting a plan that reduces vulnerability to plan-inclusive counterplans might introduce additional vulnerabilities on topicality, solvency, and circumvention.
Therefore, it is important for affirmative teams to explicitly “rank” their priorities for plan writing. What is the most important consideration to take into account when writing the plan? What is the second most important consideration? And on the other hand, what is the least important consideration to take into account when writing the plan? In other words, what strategic vulnerabilities is the affirmative team prepared to accept in order to accrue what they believe is a more valuable strategic benefit?
In order to make the “right” decision, it is important to assess the strategic context. This can be done “holistically” (for the season, a part of the season, or a tournament) or specifically (for a particular debate). The latter is more useful, but also more time intensive.
Holistic analysis requires taking into account a wide range of factors including the strengths and weaknesses of the affirmative case, the strengths and weaknesses of the affirmative debaters/team, the prevailing negative argument trends for the circuit/season, and the general argument preferences of the judging pool. This can guide general, early-season plan writing, but it is also valuable to “zoom in” to analyze plan writing strategy for particular debates. In addition to the affirmative case’s strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of the affirmative debaters/team, this requires taking into account the argument tendencies of the negative team, their strengths and weaknesses, and the preferences of the judge(s) who will decide the debate.
After taking all of this into account, an affirmative team can decide which strategic considerations to prioritize and which to sacrifice. This will produce a customized priority list of the eleven considerations described above. For some teams and for some debates, the “right” priority list might begin with process counterplans and PICs and end with solvency and circumvention. For other teams and for other debates, the “right” priority list might begin with topicality and agent counterplans and end with process-based DA links.
Remember, all plan writing decisions require some amount of tradeoff. Is making sure the plan is topical the most important consideration? Then the affirmative might need to accept additional vulnerability to particular counterplans. Is minimizing the affirmative’s strategic vulnerability to process counterplans most important? Then the affirmative might need to accept a weaker solvency/circumvention position.
There is no universal “right” plan — it is always dependent on the context in which the plan is being debated. However, there is a universally “right” process for crafting a plan, and it requires the intentional, thoughtful, and comprehensive analysis of the strategic considerations described above.
Common Plan Writing Choices
In addition to the strategic considerations outlined above, there are several common tactical plan-writing choices that affirmative teams often must decide. They include:
1. Should the plan be specific or vague?
Specific plans tend to be better against solvency and circumvention arguments and generic disadvantages, but they are often more vulnerable to plan-inclusive counterplans. Sometimes, more specific plans struggle to answer topicality. At the same time, specific plans can “spike” negative disadvantages, counterplans, and case arguments. There is no universal “right” answer, but vague plans have been more popular during the modern (what I call policy testing and hypothesis planning) era.
2. Should the plan use resolutional language or avoid it?
“Planicality” is a relatively recent trend that offers costs and benefits; I discussed it in more depth in part six of my series about the history of plans. In short, including words from the resolution in the plan can help prove topicality and shield the plan from many generic counterplans, but it can also introduce added vulnerability to resolution-based mechanism counterplans and certain generic topic DAs. Sometimes, a resolution’s verb/mechanism can be interpreted to require a particular agent of action; using that word in the plan might make an agent counterplan competitive. On other topics, using the resolution’s language might dodge agent counterplans and agent-based DAs. Again, there is no universal “right” answer, but planicality has been the most popular plan writing innovation of the late 2010s and early 2020s.
3. Should the plan use the resolutional agent or specify a sub-agent?
In the last decade, agent specification has become very rare. The benefit of specifying a sub-agent is that it can “spike” some counterplans and disadvantages. The cost of specifying is that it creates competition for agent counterplans, invites the link to agent-based disadvantages, and makes the plan more vulnerable to circumvention and interbranch conflict-based solvency arguments. Whether this is a worthwhile tradeoff depends on the particular circumstances; there is no universal “right” answer.
4. Should the plan attempt to explicitly spike out of any negative arguments?
“Spikes” are plan provisions that attempt to deny or turn expected negative arguments, including (most often) disadvantage links, counterplans, and solvency/circumvention arguments. While spikes have become less common in an era of shorter, less specific plans, they are still worth considering in particular contexts. Most notably, they can be used to insulate plan texts from plan-inclusive (especially “exception”) counterplans. If an affirmative team expects the negative to “PIC out of” a small subset of the plan, it might be strategic for them to write an exception clause into their plan. This will introduce increased vulnerability to solvency arguments and (potentially) topicality arguments, but the tradeoff is often worthwhile.
5. Should the plan be the same in most debates or should it change frequently?
The benefit of reading the same plan over-and-over again is that it can be thoroughly vetted and practiced/rehearsed. This can help affirmative debaters feel more confident defending it. If the plan invites a particular negative strategy, continuing to read it (and therefore invite that strategy) can also accrue the “repetition benefit” described above. The benefit of frequently changing the plan is that it can be crafted to strengthen the affirmative’s strategic position in individual debates. It can also introduce a degree of uncertainty into negative teams’ strategic preparations; if negatives can’t count on the same plan being read in most debates, they might have to prepare more generic (and, therefore, potentially weaker) strategies in order to “hedge their bets.”
Providing “universal” plan writing advice can be a fool’s errand. Consider, for example, Jeff Arrington’s plan writing guide from 1982. In retrospect, the checklist of things to include in every plan is so dated that it is unusable; no one would craft a plan like that in 2021. But by thinking about the context in which that advice was given, one can “reverse engineer” the strategic considerations that Arrington was taking into account when deciding how to best craft a strategic plan. In this post, I have attempted to provide a more timeless guide to plan writing that can benefit students in any era of policy debate. Regardless of era, good plan writing relies on the same basic process I have described. Using this method, students on any policy debate circuit can craft more strategic plans that will give them the best chance for success.