One of the biggest mistakes debaters make is assuming that all arguments are equal in power.
Maybe if you pressed them on that question they’d admit that some arguments are better than others, but catch them in the middle of the round and their actions would not reflect that. I’d wager that a solid majority of the rounds I’ve judged over the past few years had incidents where debaters kept arguing over a point that didn’t matter at all. There’s nothing more frustrating to me as a judge to see people spending time on arguments no one should care about!
How do we avoid doing this? I think the best way is to examine the debate round looking backwards. If we’re preparing a negative brief it’s easy to see 16 minutes worth of constructive time to fill, and that becomes our goal. However, every round ends with the 2NR/2AR, and those speeches are only 5 minutes each. No matter what you do in the constructives, you’ve got to sell to the judge that you’ve won the round with a slim 5 minutes. Time is your resource in a debate round. Which arguments are worth that time? What actually helps you win the round?
If you are looking at your negative briefs and having trouble answering those questions, back up a bit. Go to the fundamentals. What is the judge evaluating? In policy debate, they’re evaluating the affirmative team’s plan: is this policy change a good idea? Every argument you run as the negative team (apart from “procedurals” like Topicality) should help the judge answer “no” to that question.
Once you’ve evaluated your arguments and have an understanding of how well each one helps you with your ultimate goal, you can start editing your strategy. Most of the time, the best strategic decision is to get rid of the weakest attacks and spend more time strengthening your most powerful arguments.
For instance, if you have a disadvantage that you think can win the round just by itself, wouldn’t you want to spend a good chunk of the round making sure that you win that argument? Wouldn’t you want to have multiple layers of support, planned cross-x questions, and the very best evidence for that argument? It seems obvious when I spell it out, but many debaters do not debate this way, and they end up spending too much time on small, insignificant arguments.
This problem isn’t isolated to negative attacks. Often I see part of the affirmative case, like a harm or advantage, that is clearly not as important as the rest of their case. Inevitably that argument ends up completely ignored throughout the round, leaving me scratching my head wondering why it was included in the first place.
Want to elevate your game? Examine your strategy from the second rebuttal back.
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