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  • Writer's pictureBen Silvian

How To Write a Debate Case

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Part 1: The Conventional Approach

Typically, students who have just joined their school's debate team are taught the Claim Warrant Impact structure for case writing.

- Your claim is your argument: in 1-2 sentences, why should the judge vote for your side?

- Your warrants are your reasoning and logic – your opportunity to explain to the judge how you are approaching the issue, and the logic that underlies and supports your claim.

- Your impact is the real-world effect that occurs if the judge votes for your side, like how much money or how many lives it would save.

Take the hypothetical resolution: Resolved: The United States should implement a Universal Basic Income.

Here’s how a case would be structured according to the traditional approach. Keep in mind that you would have to write cases on both the PRO (affirmative) and CON (negative) sides, but for simplicity, here is a simple PRO case.

My partner and I affirm the resolution. Resolved: The United States should implement a Universal Basic Income.

Contention 1: Making Americans Smarter

Claim: Implementing a UBI would increase the intelligence of most Americans.

Warrant: Living in poverty drastically affects a human’s intelligence and ability to think, by forcing her to spend most of her time worrying about survival. This throws her into what is referred to by researchers as a “scarcity mindset,” as opposed to an “abundance mindset.”

Impact: Operating in a scarcity mindset damages an human’s ability to make the best choices. According to researchers from Princeton University, people who are preoccupied with money problems “exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep.”

Contention 2: Increasing Entrepreneurship

Claim: Implementing a Universal Basic Income would significantly increase the rate of entrepreneurship in America.

Warrant: Universal Basic Income doesn’t merely help the impoverished. Middle class Americans who would love to let their creative side flourish and start their own business often are dissuaded from doing so because it would be too big of a financial risk. Guaranteeing every American monthly cash payments would allow people to take risks more and achieve their fullest potential by providing a powerful layer of financial security.

Impact: Entrepreneurship is a force for good in America, powering the economy and improving peoples’ lives. Not only are we helping the entrepreneur herself experience the joy of operating her own company, but also as Investopedia reports, nascent businesses create 1.6 million jobs a year.

Contention 3: Eradicating Poverty

Claim: If every American received $1000/month we would virtually eradicate poverty in America.

Warrant: Giving people money is the single best way to get them above the poverty line. Even though a small UBI of $1,000/month for every American may not be enough to lift every single American above the poverty line of $12,288/year for an individual, it would come very close.

Impact: The eradication of poverty changes and saves lives by allowing millions of impoverished Americans the opportunity to break free of the welfare state, and to choose how to spend their own money for the first time ever.

Then we would just add some additional studies, make the contentions into real paragraphs and there we go, we have a case!

Well, not so fast. This is a case, but it’s not an especially good one. Instead of approaching cases as a formula, you should approach cases as a story. Time and time again, the debaters that win are the best storytellers.

Think about it from the judge’s perspective. If you are a competitive high school debater, your judge will either be a coach from another school, or a parent. You are putting dozens of hours into your preparation every week in preparation for this tournament, all to stand up and speak to Tommy’s Mom from the other town over.

She doesn’t care that you found the perfect quantification after hours and hours of research. She cares about whether you can be like-able and persuasive. In debate, the “best” team does not always win, but the “perceptually dominant team” usually does.

Part 2: The Approach - 5 Tips

Instead of writing stock cases, here are 5 Tips that will help you stand out from the rest of the competition, connect with judges, and win more rounds.

Tip #1: Write a Narrative, not a Template.

If you are “plugging and chugging” with debate cases, treating them like math problems, you may soon realize that you need to use a different approach. Debate is about persuasion, meaning you need to appeal to human beings. Performing all the “debate technicalities” correctly, following all the tips you’ve heard from your peers, and using all the best pieces of evidence does not guarantee a win.

Rather, your goal should be to connect with the judge. To spark some sort of emotion, empathy within them. Make it clear that you genuinely care about the issues you are discussing (and if you don’t, you should keep looking for arguments until you find ones you do care about – it is much easier to win if you actually believe what you are saying).

The best way to do this is to write a narrative. Pick a single overarching theme and structure your entire position around it. This may require some framework analysis at the top, explaining what issue you believe it the most important in the round and why.

Then your 1 to 3 contentions will explain why your side solves that issue best. This is often done best with a single contention.

Tip #2: Don’t search for the “best card on the topic” because it doesn’t exist.

“Card” is debate-speak for evidence. Many debaters will spend all of their time searching for the best card out there, and assume that will be enough to win them rounds. Even worse, other debaters hear about a piece of evidence other teams are using, and decide they must start using it too before even reading it.

The fact is that evidence is what you make of it. If your evidence is fantastic but you don’t present it in a clear and compelling way, with strong logical warrants to back it up, you will lose. Additionally, if your evidence is fantastic but you misconstrue it (you paraphrase it and claim it says something that it doesn’t), you open yourself up not only to losing that round when the opponent or judge asks to see that piece of evidence, but you also risk getting kicked out of the tournament.

Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t research or that you shouldn’t use evidence. You absolutely should build your topic knowledge through research and cite studies and experts – just know that evidence doesn’t win rounds; persuasion does.

Tip #3: Constantly Challenge Yourself To Improve

If you have completed a case that you would be comfortable reading in a real tournament, well congratulations! But a better way to approach the subject is to think of your case as a continuous work in progress. The best debaters are constantly rewriting.

In addition: write multiple cases! The best way to get better is to keep practicing – research, write, practice speaking, and then do it all over again. Think of new ways to challenge yourself; my last case took 2 weeks to write… can I write my next one in 1 week? 4 days? 2 days? Set goals and push yourself. Just keep moving and thinking, challenging yourself and others, and you will be rewarded for your hard work. Might even have some fun too!

Tip #4: Believe in Yourself

There is no one size fits all argument in debate, and there is no single best argument on a topic. Just because the team that won the tournament is using a specific argument doesn’t mean you should too.

When choosing which arguments to include in your case, don’t let yourself succumb to peer pressure. This doesn’t mean you should be closed-minded; rather, it means that at the end of the day your argument is only as good as how you present it. If you don’t understand the warrants behind an argument, don’t run it. If you think it doesn’t really make sense, it is clearly not for you.

Instead of trying to force a fit, believe in yourself and your mind. In the end, all those “successful, elite debaters” are just other high school kids who have trials and tribulations of their own. Instead of trying to beat them at their game, make them try to bear you at yours.

Tip #5: Do Not Tie Your Self-Worth To Your Success

Apologies – this tip is more of a general one than one about case-writing, but we felt we had to include it anyway.

It is so easy to fall into this trap, where you believe you are only as smart as the number of rounds you won. You just worked your butt off for a whole month and flew halfway across the country to compete in a tournament, only to finish with a 3-3 record and no opportunity to compete in out-rounds. It can be tough, frustrating, demoralizing.

The thing all debaters should keep in mind when they find themselves in this position (it’s not just you - all debaters do at some point) is that when it comes down to it, you did not join this activity for the hardware; you joined it for the experience.

If you happen to go to a school with a debate team, you already are incredibly fortunate. The vast majority of American students do not get the opportunity to meet thousands of like-minded kids across the state and the country, and to engage in rich intellectual discussion. At first, this may be scary, but once you graduate and go off to college, the power of your debate education will become clear.

By participating in debate, you will become incredibly articulate. You will understand how to better structure your arguments, which actually translates into an ability to better structure your thoughts. You will become intimately familiar with the same big political, business, and humanitarian issues that global leaders grapple with every day, and you will develop a strong, clear, unique voice.

If you want a trophy you can always buy one online. If you want a transformative educational experience, stick with debate!


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