Discover more from Victory Briefs
Back to Basics: Case Writing—Part 1 by Lawrence Zhou
Lawrence Zhou is currently a Fulbright Taiwan Debate Coach and Trainer and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the Victory Briefs Institute and the 2014 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas Debate.
In this article, Lawrence talks about his favorite phrase when discussing case writing—think backwards; think forwards—and how this advice can fundamentally change the way that debaters write their cases.
Continuing with my previous post in my new Back to Basics series, I want to return now to an important skill—case writing. As the September/October topic was recently released (shameless plug for the Victory Briefs packet available now), students are now in the process of writing or revising their cases for and against single-payer. (While I obviously aim most of my writing at LD, this one contains advice that PF debaters might also find useful!)
However, casing (the process of writing cases) is not as easy as slapping some evidence together—it requires more thought and planning than initially meets the eye. I find that many JV or newer varsity debaters still find it challenging to craft a strong case on both sides.
This article is not intended to serve as a comprehensive guide to casing.1 Instead, this essay is the first part in a series of essays that illustrate core principles to follow when you are putting together your case.
This first entry into this miniseries will focus on the phrase: Think backwards; think forwards. The rest of this essay will expound upon what this means and how to apply it to your case writing.
Before we get into the specifics, I want to present this excellent quote from Anthony Trufanov in Part 3 of his (excellent) series Elevating the AFF (which I shouted out in the previous entry in this series): “While the 1AC is one of the first things I think about, it is also one of the last things I finish.” Why might this be the case? Read on to find out!
Think Backwards; Think Forwards
Amazon is a company that (rightfully) receives lots of criticism (from abusing workers to destroying the environment to destroying competition in the market to so much else), but one thing that can’t be denied is how successful they’ve been at dominating the entire economy. How did they get to be so dominant? Part of it is certainly engaging in unethical business practices, but part of it is explained in Colin Bryar and Bill Carr’s new book Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon. As the name implies, one of the key lessons that Amazon followed was to work backwards—they would start with what they envisioned the finished product would look like before moving onto anything else. As Jonathan Knee writes, “The idea is to start with the desired customer experience when designing new products, going so far as to draft ‘a press release that literally announces the product as if it were ready to launch and an FAQ anticipating the tough questions.’”
Why would Amazon follow this strategy of working backwards? How did that advantage them relative to their competitors? Because Amazon knew what they wanted and ruthlessly carried out whatever plan that got them where they wanted to be. No more wasted time fiddling around on projects that would be nothing more than distractions or diverted resources. No more second-guessing about whether they could accomplish what they set out to do. They had a vision and did whatever it took to achieve it (for better or worse).
Again, Amazon is not a company that I would frequently champion, but at least the underlying part of the strategy—to work backwards—is undeniably effective and something we can learn something from.
I think this is the single most common piece of advice that I give to students trying to write cases. In fact, you can hear me talk about it as far back as 2017, when I talk about this exact idea in my Debating Traditionally series (and, as always, I would strongly suggest watching that series as it summarizes the vast majority of my core thoughts on traditional and lay debate in one easy series).
So, what does this phrase—think backwards; think forwards—mean? While I have yet to settle on any precise definition, the core idea can be summarized as follows:
Thinking backwards: What does the winning final rebuttal speech sound like?
Thinking forwards: What does it take to get there?
In other words, I tend to think backwards from the final rebuttal speech and I tend to think forwards to the first rebuttal speech. I have found that this heuristic is among the better ways that I’ve discovered for beginning to introduce the idea of strategic thinking for most debaters.
Let’s start with considering this advice from the affirmative side and what this advice would look like practically before looking at it from the perspective of the negative.
First, what is the most important affirmative speech? It clearly can’t be the affirmative constructive speech. No one wins for reading a good case—you can only win if you successfully prove the resolution is true throughout the debate. The fact that novices can read the same cases as varsity debaters and consistently lose (and that varsity debaters can read cases written by novices and consistently win) should make this abundantly clear.
Yet, despite the fact that the affirmative constructive speech is obviously not the most important speech in the debate, so many debaters invest disproportionate time into casing and not nearly enough time into other important skills and content areas needed to win tougher debates. In other words, what is the value of writing a good case if you can’t successfully extend or defend it in the subsequent rebuttal speeches? True, a good case is what sets up subsequent speeches for success, but that hardly demonstrates anything beyond the fact that the affirmative constructive speech can rarely win or lose the debate on its own.
Ok, if the most important affirmative speech isn’t the affirmative constructive speech, then surely it’s the dreaded first affirmative rebuttal or 1AR. This, I think, is a far more reasonable answer and I could see a case for it being the most important. It is, after all, an incredibly difficult speech (and is a speech that should definitely be lengthened to five minutes instead of the paltry four nowadays) to give and many debates are lost after the 1AR—if the 1AR improperly answers an entire negative contention or drops a takeout to the whole affirmative case, it’s pretty difficult to recover from that tactical blunder. If the 1AR is the speech that most often is the most proximate cause for lost affirmative rounds (and, in Part 3 of my Debating Traditionally series, I make the case for why I think the affirmative should lose the vast majority of rounds against otherwise equally matched opponents solely due to the difficulty of the 1AR), then I think it could reasonably be considered the most important affirmative speech.
However, even the 1AR—scary as it might be—isn’t the most important speech, at least not in my view. Why not? While this blog post from Debate Drills explains does describe the 1AR as the most important speech (a view I obviously lightly disagree with), I think it does a good job of summarizing what I would take to be a set of strong reasons:
First, it should always think from the 2AR backwards. The debate is never won in the 1AR; what matters is delivering a killer 2AR. The 1AR, although the most important speech (by nature of how hard it is), does not win the debate – it just sets up the 2AR. As a result, every argument in the 1AR should be purposive – don’t just make arguments to make them. An argument needs to contribute to a winning 2AR (whether by being an argument you’ll directly go for in the 2AR or by being an argument that you won’t extend but that wastes the opponent’s time) (emphasis mine).
This strikes me as one of the more succinct summaries of what the purpose of the 1AR is—it is just about setting up a winning 2AR.
So, which speech, in my view, is ultimately the most important? The second affirmative rebuttal or 2AR! It’s the only speech that can win the debate—every other speech can really only lose you debates. You don’t win for reading a cool case; you don’t win for giving a solid 1AR. You win if you persuade the judge that the resolution is more likely true than false in the 2AR.
Of course, that is easier done if the other speeches are good (hence why we’ll discuss them shortly), but I think it’s important to recognize that the value of the other two speeches lies primarily in how well they set up a winning 2AR. It doesn’t matter how good the pass was if you miss the dunk; it doesn’t matter how good the throw was if you trip before the touchdown (insert other strained sports analogy here).
What I generally recommend debaters do is think about the “truest” feeling argument on the topic. By this, I don’t necessarily mean picking the argument that necessarily has the most academic support or the most plausible syllogism (since those are sometimes too convoluted to effectively sell to a lay audience).
What I mean is that you should find the argument that resonates well with audiences because they feel that it’s a true argument. It’s the argument that someone hears and goes, “Yeah, that just makes sense,” or, “Oh, yeah, that’s obviously true.” That’s the type of argument we’re generally after—the one that feels true at a gut level. Obviously, there are limitations on this approach—don’t pick arguments that the negative is very likely to turn or that are blatantly false upon after just a brief examination. But instead pick the argument that you think stands the best chance of winning a debate in front of a wide variety of judges.
Here are some of the questions I might ask a student as they were picking their “winning” 2AR argument:
Is the argument intuitive enough that most judges won’t immediately reject it out of hand? If not, I would consider a different argument.
Does the argument have adequate support in the scholarly literature? If not, it is likely because the chosen argument isn’t taken seriously by experts due to some obvious flaw with it.
Is the argument easily explainable in the context of time-crunched debate speech? If not, then the argument may not be worth making because you won’t have time to do anything other than extend your argument.
Is the argument easily refuted, e.g., are there obvious logical fallacies or strong negative responses? If yes, consider picking something more resistant to attack. (One caveat: Obviously, most stock affirmative arguments will be heavily criticized in the relevant literature—don’t let that deter you. The operative word is strong negative responses—not all negative responses are created equal. Just because an argument is criticized doesn’t mean it’s not a good one or that the criticisms are any good.)
Is it strong enough to outweigh common negative arguments? If not, then winning the argument won’t matter as the negative’s offense will outweigh yours.
Once you have selected an argument that roughly fits the criteria laid out above, I would think about how that integrates into the overall ballot story that you want to sell. As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham notes in his book Why Don’t Students Like School: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories--so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as "psychologically privileged," meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material.”
This should be no groundbreaking insight—we remember stories far better than isolated facts. Consequently, there should be an emphasis on telling a good ballot story when thinking backwards. The question I would ask myself when writing a case is, “Why is the ultimate story you want to tell at the end of the debate?”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on this front came from my high school debate coach who would often advise me that:
This has been among the most important lessons that has stuck with me since high school and one of the best pieces of coaching advice that I can impart. While it is obviously never going to be the case that the RFD is a transcript of your final rebuttal, I think this serves as a shining North Star—a desirable goal to work towards.
A ballot story, here defined as what you intend to be the written reason for decision for why the judge voted for you, is so important and powerful for three reasons:
First, as Willingham notes, “stories are easy to comprehend, because the audience knows the structure, which helps to interpret the action. For example, the audience knows that events don't happen randomly in stories. There must be a causal connection, so if the cause is not immediately apparent, the audience will think carefully about the previous action to try to connect it to present events.” In the context of writing a good ballot story, a good ballot story will help the judge understand the connection between the various arguments in the debate. This helps judges understand which arguments matter more and how you still win even in the face of counterarguments.
Second, Willingham writes, “stories are interesting. Reading researchers have conducted experiments in which people read lots of different types of material and rate each for how interesting it is. Stories are consistently rated as more interesting than other formats (for example, expository prose), even if the same information is presented.” This works especially well if your speeches are laden with ethos, pathos, and logos, where the arguments are made more interesting by weaving them together into a ballot story that is more engaging than just hearing facts alone.
Third, Willingham concludes, “stories are easy to remember. There are at least two contributing factors here. Because comprehending stories requires lots of medium-difficulty inferences, you must think about the story's meaning throughout.” Ballot stories help resolve so much of the messiness of rounds by providing something that the judge can easily remember.
In my opinion, only when a good ballot story has been established should the case writing begin.
Let’s use the current Lincoln-Douglas topic—Resolved: The United States ought to implement a single-payer universal healthcare system—as an example.
Imagine you are affirmative on this topic, defending the value of single-payer. After having done copious amounts of research such that you are familiar with the core arguments on the topic, you realize that the affirmative is largely confined to a limited set of arguments, e.g., concerns about unequal access to healthcare, arguments about reining in the high costs of healthcare in the United States, and advantages about pandemic prevention.
The first question I would ask myself before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) would be: “What do I want the first and last 30 seconds of my 2AR to sound like?” If I was strongly persuaded by the arguments about the potential of single-payer healthcare to save over 68,000 lives each year, I would want to design my case so that it set up a 2AR that could write a ballot story for why single-payer was the best way to save tens of thousands of lives each year. Only when I was satisfied with that ballot story would I begin writing my case.
To conclude this segment, Jake Nebel summarizes this view in his essay “Positional Debating” (available here):
Before writing your outline, ask yourself what you want your final rebuttal to sound like. Ask yourself what you don’t want your opponent’s final rebuttal to sound like. Now write the position with an eye to these final rebuttals. If you do this right, then you should have similar voting issues in every debate. This will make your final rebuttals significantly better because you’ll be practicing the same stories every round (emphasis mine).
Personally, I found the entire essay on positional debating to be one of the more important ones that I have read in debate. It changed my entire outlook on how to approach casing and I think you’ll find it valuable as well.
So far, we’ve talked about what the end goal is. We’ve basically decided on the destination for our roadtrip. However, we still need to ask how we’re going to get there. This leads us nicely to the idea of thinking forwards—asking how we get to that winning 2AR that we’ve envisioned.
In a debate, the negative is going to do their best to prevent you from reaching your final destination. They will raise objections to your arguments and present their own case for why your proposal or advocacy is bad. You need to plan out how you’re going to deal with the inevitable roadblocks the negative will try and raise. This requires thinking forwards.
On most topics, there really aren’t that many arguments on both sides. This makes it fairly easy for debaters to anticipate the likely arguments and objections that the other side will make. For example, on this single-payer topic, there is one common negative argument you can expect to encounter in the vast majority of your rounds—wait times. Try as you might to escape it, the negative is probably going to read the wait times argument in nearly every single round. And smart negative debaters will likely not read the argument as a standalone negative contention but as a turn to the affirmative case.
If this is likely to be an incredibly common response that directly interacts with arguments in your affirmative case, you should anticipate such a response and build-in warrants to answer this argument.
My general rule of thumb is as follows:
This means that if the negative makes the most common responses to your case, you have already anticipated this and have built-in something into your case designed to directly take out that common response.
Returning to the wait times example, I suspect I will see many debates where the 1AR will read one, two, or even three pieces of evidence to answer the wait times argument. This is a mistake. The 1AR is a time-crunched speech that needs to maximize the value of every single second. The wait times argument is something that should be priced in (a fancy way of saying “anticipated”) because it’s something that directly interacts with many of the common affirmative arguments.
That means at least one or two pieces of evidence in the affirmative case should have something to say about wait times, e.g., how single-payer still saves lives even assuming wait times; how wait times in the US are already high, especially for those without insurance now; or about how carefully designed and well-funded single-payer systems can avoid wait times. Given how weak the wait times argument is (at least to me), it is an argument that should be easily dispatched without having to make a single new argument in the 1AR—the 1AR merely needs to extend what was already written in the affirmative case to defeat this objection.
Note that this does not mean that the affirmative case should be shoved full of preempts to every potential negative case. The affirmative should not, for example, read a contention called “preempts” and read one piece of evidence to answer the innovation argument, another piece of evidence to answer economic objections against single-payer, and another piece of evidence to answer a potential “public option” counterplan. This would be foolish. The negative may not read those contentions, so you would be directly preempting nothing.
What this does mean is that when you are designing your case, you should aim to find arguments and evidence that are multi-functional. By this, I mean that you should aim to find arguments that and evidence that do more than one thing—maybe one piece of evidence is both a strong warrant for how single-payer saves lives and also a direct preempt to the wait times argument. Your case should still primarily aim to present a cogent story in favor of single-payer, not merely try and preempt everything the negative might potentially say.
A lot of the same advice mentioned above also applies to the negative. The negative case should be designed with a winning second negative rebuttal in mind (from here on out, I will refer to the second negative speech—the six minute one—as the second negative rebuttal or 2NR, although I think that reasonable substitutes would be negative rebuttal, NR, or 2N).
The only major difference is that the negative only has two speeches compared to the affirmative’s three speeches. So, what is the negative thinking forwards to?
One common error I see in many debaters is that they will excessively cross-apply arguments from the negative case as responses to the affirmative case.
For example, one extremely common negative argument on the current LD topic is that single-payer would lead to increased rationing of medical services via longer wait times. While this is a solid negative argument (and should be made as a response to most affirmative cases), it would be a mistake to overly rely on this single argument to win (as most of the affirmative responses to this argument are quite compelling).
Yet, so many negative debaters will read a negative case with a contention about wait times (not a mistake in and of itself) and not have a single response to the affirmative case that isn’t predicated on wait times. It was extremely common for debaters at camp to get to an affirmative contention and the only thing they would say was, “On my opponent’s first contention about access, cross-apply my negative contention about wait times—an increase in the number of insured people means nothing if people have access to equally long wait times that ensure no one, including the least well off, actually receives timely, quality care.”
While the sentiment of the argument is nice (in more advanced terms, we might call this a turns case argument, where the truth of some offensive argument actually worsens some issue identified by the opponent) because more debaters should do turns case analysis, this is woefully insufficient to constitute a winning negative strategy.
Why? The one advantage that the negative is guaranteed is an extreme time imbalance. The vast majority of topics slant in favor of the affirmative (and some aren’t slanted but steep cliffs like the public health emergencies topic from the 2021 NSDA National Tournament). The negative generally cannot hope to win via substantive advantage alone (although there are some topics that lean negative). Rather, the negative wins by applying copious amounts of pressure to the affirmative from a variety of angles in the hopes that the affirmative collapses underneath the onslaught of arguments.
The very idea of “cross-applying” arguments as the negative is antithetical to this goal. It functionally forfeits speech time. It is the equivalent of unilaterally disarming yourself of the best tool available to the negative—time.
Think about it. The 1AR is a difficult speech because it has to respond to seven minutes of diverse offense in just four minutes. Even assuming a 150% efficiency rate (being able to make six minutes worth of arguments in just four minutes), that still means that the affirmative should be dropping a whole minute of arguments after the 1AR. And given that most 1ARs are not 150% efficient, the 1AR should be dropping far more than a minute worth of arguments on average.
But when the negative chooses to cross-apply an argument, they basically don’t make an argument at all. Does the affirmative suddenly need to respond to an argument twice just because it was cross-applied and thus appears in two places on the flow? No! If the affirmative defeats the argument, then there is simply nothing left.
Similarly, if the negative reads a three minute negative case with two contentions—one about wait times and the other about medical innovation—but the only answer to the affirmative case is just cross-applying the wait times contention, then the negative has functionally only given a three speech speech. There goes the one thing that the negative had going for them—the time advantage. Now, the 1AR isn’t answering seven minutes of arguments in four minutes; it’s answering three minutes of arguments in four minutes, a far more manageable task.
In debate jargon, we’re looking for a negative case that is external to common responses that could be levied against the affirmative case. Here, external means something that is not directly related to any other arguments presented in round. In other words, the truth (or falsity) of another major argument would not have much bearing on the truth (or falsity) of other arguments.
For example, if the negative read a case with two contentions, one about the massive fiscal cost of single-payer healthcare and the other about the deleterious effects that single-payer would have on medical innovation writ large, then the negative could respond to the affirmative case with the argument about wait times and that would be external from the contentions in the negative case. In other words, the affirmative debater couldn’t defeat all the negative contentions with a single response. Just because single-payer might not increase wait times has very little bearing on whether it would decimate the economy or tank medical innovation. Here, the negative has diversified their offense—giving them multiple paths to victory in the 2NR.
Now, how does this relate to thinking forward? One thing that you must consider when writing your negative case is whether the arguments in your negative case will heavily overlap with the responses that you will make against most common affirmative arguments. In other words, is the negative case external to the turns and other responses that you might make against common affirmative arguments? You want to think forward to see if you will accidentally duplicate or overlap in terms of arguments. The best negative cases are often the ones that are entirely external to other common negative arguments.
To summarize, here are some of the practical takeaways you should leave with:
The last 30 seconds of your final rebuttal should be verbatim what the judge writes for their RFD.
Think backwards—know what the ideal winning 2AR or 2NR sounds like and write your case to set up that final rebuttal speech. Ask yourself whether the case sets up an argument that can win the debate.
Think forwards—you shouldn’t need a single new piece of evidence in the subsequent rebuttals against the most common responses to your position.
Don’t cross-apply as the negative—that squanders your time advantage.
So, let’s return to the quote from Trufanov in Elevating the AFF: “While the 1AC is one of the first things I think about, it is also one of the last things I finish.” Why might you want to finish the case last? Because you shouldn’t finish writing the case until you have fully thought through the debate backwards and forwards.
It’s not until you know exactly what you want to say in the final rebuttal speeches that you should put the finishing touches on your case. It’s not until you know exactly how you want to leverage your affirmative case against common negative positions that you should add the last cards or analytics into your case.
This doesn’t mean that the case never needs revision, this doesn’t mean that the affirmative case is a finished project, and this doesn’t mean that the strategy can’t change. What it does mean is that you should be intentional with how you write your case. Don’t write it because it’s “cool” or because you like the idea—write the case because it will help you win debates.
In Part 2 of this miniseries on case writing, I will talk about some other principles of case writing that I also find to be valuable.
 If you’re writing a case for the first time, I’d suggest looking at other resources (such as this one from the Wyoming Debate Roundup on how to write a PF case, this video from Debate Drills, the Introduction to Lincoln-Douglas Debate textbook from Victory Briefs Classroom, or the free Lincoln-Douglas Textbook provided by the NSDA written by Dr. Seth Halvorson & Cherian Koshy).