Improving Over the Summer 3: Organization and Backfiles


There are a lot of arguments in debate on any given topic, but there are also arguments that due to their broad applicability come up over and over again on many topics. These can be anything from theory/T/FW to impacts/impact turns. Oftentimes when an issue comes up that hasn’t been popular for a while people are left scrambling to try and find answers, when they find them they aren’t highlighted, and then they lose to spark or something equally frustrating. The first time I debated spark in college I was thrilled a I remembered copying the backfile in the office only days before. I opened it up and whoever had done the file (on paper) had highlighted in a dark color so the photocopy basically looked like an Area 51 document

Image result for document redacted

It was totally useless. I was hurt more in the debate by flipping out/getting angry over that than I would have been if we hadn’t had any evidence period.


Furthermore, in modern debate you face a new dilemma: for years the evidence problem was “scarcity”, people closely guarded evidence to maintain competitive advantage. Now everything (almost) is available online, there is too much evidence. The problem now is learning how to quickly sort through/filter the vast amount of evidence that is out there and produce a working/useable file from it. There are clearly too many arguments for one person to tackle this in one summer, but doing a bit at a time (esp if you share work with a team/other debaters) also offers an opportunity to practice prepping/organizing a file- a vastly underestimated skill.


I see a lot of speech docs on email chains that are an organizational disaster. Not surprisingly these speeches usually turn into an organizational disaster. I think a big part of this is that the files people are drawing evidence/blocks from are an organizational disaster (this is also a primary cause of using too much prep time). How do I know this? Well I did a demo debate the other day and with a well organized cap file it only took me a few seconds to assemble everything I needed for the speech. This was despite the fact that I haven’t debated in forever,didn’t spend much if any time prepping the file etc.


So how does one work on backfiles/organization?


  1. We need to pick a topic. Since we are trying to get a 2 for 1 where we both learn about an argument and learn about how to do the organization start by generating a list of arguments you know are out there but that you haven’t prepped before. Lets say your list was: Baudrillard, spark, dedev, consult Japan. In reality your list is probably going to be way, way longer than this. Once you have it start thinking about what kind of arguments you want to run on the upcoming education topic. If you are going to read a no plan aff and pref judges who like the K then consult Japan might not be for you. Similarly if you are going to pref policy only you don’t need Baudrillard. So lets say you think you are going to read a heg aff and you want to impact turn things on the neg so you pick dedev.
  2. All the cards- step 2 is to find every conceivable card you can find on the aff/neg for dedev. Start by going to the NDCA open evidence project you can see that a search for dedev turns up quite a few files. Also search for “growth” or “economic decline” etc. Then go to the college wiki and do a similar search. When you get a file /speech you want to copy and paste that evidence into a new document you are organizing as you go. So I start with 2 “pockets” on verbatim- growth good and growth bad. Then each time I find a card or set of cards I would add it to a header. So lets say my first few headers turn out to be: growth unsustainable, growth causes war, growth causes warming etc. I read through the first speech/file in its entirety and sort all the evidence just based on what its tagged- im not reading it. Then I move on to the next one etc. After I get like 15-20 headers under a “pocket” I start using “hats” to subdivide the aff and neg. That ends up looking something like this: Organization Example .  Depending on how things go I may re-structure/change the level divisions but you get the general idea. As you start adding more and more cards the file will get very large- it will be way worse to go an organize at the end. This may take a few days- especially if you can only work for a small amount of time.
  3. Reading- now after all that is done, its time to start reading. Under each header you may have anywhere from 5-30 cards. You only get 3. That’s a hard and fast rule- any header can have no more than 3 cards under it. If there are more than 3 you either need to delete the worst ones, or make a new subheader. So for example if you had 5 cards for growth unsustainable, 2 were about natural limits, and 3 were about inequality you could make 2 different headers and be ok. Lets assume no subdivision, you have 10 cards under a header. Read the first one and highlight it. Assign it a rough value on a scale of 1-10. Then read card 2 and assign it a value. If the value of card 2 is higher than place it above card one on the block. You should always have things organized so the best card is first- as that is the card most likely to be read. Read card 3 and repeat. Now you have 3 cards, at this point if the card you read 4th is NOT better than those 3- deleted. Repeat for card 5. Now card 6 is better- well if its “the best” you place it at the top and delete the formerly 3rd now 4th card. If its 2nd best place it below the first and delete the last. That basic process of evaluating card vs card is the thing you will be doing over and over and over again. This can be boring/frustrating so you may want to break up this work by alternating with something else.




I can’t emphasize this enough: learning to differentiate between good and bad evidence is one of the most important skills in debate. This is one of the best ways to practice it. Different arguments (or parts of the argument) require different evaluations and tough calls- for uniqueness maybe you pick recency over quals, maybe for impacts you do the opposite


4. Now you have gone through the aff/neg and sorted it all, eliminated bad cards. This will take a while. What you need to figure out now is are there any “‘holes” in your file. A hole is where either you know there is a piece of information missing for one side (like you have growth unsustainable but no growth sustainable ev) or you know there is an argument out there that you didn’t manage to find a card on in other peoples docs (growth kills bees). These holes need to be plugged by research


5. Now that you have all the evidence it’s time to write blocks. I won’t go into a huge amount of depth here on how to write blocks but basically you need to brainstorm a list of arguments you could face for each side, and then make a set of arguments ( a block) encompassing both evidence and analytics to respond to it. So if you are writing a 2NC “unsustainable” block what you would do is go to that area of the file- if you have 3 headers for specific reasons its unsustainable you just grab the top card from each header (which is the best) and put them in a doc. Then add any analytics you want (reasons to prefer your evidence, indicts /analytics against the other sides arguments) .


After you have done that for both sides you are done. You have successfully created a decent backfile. This could be taken further- supplemented with additional new research, giving practice speeches etc. The work is never done. But after you do this a few times you will be much better at rapidly sorting/finding things you need.



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