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Quality flowing—debate vernacular for “notetaking”—is instrumental to competitive success, yet many intermediate and advanced debaters don’t enhance their flowing capabilities beyond the techniques they absorbed as novices. There’s a prevailing mindset that flowing is so subjective and idiosyncratic that it’s impossible to optimize—you can’t appeal to universal principles of flowing because each debater develops their own individual style, so why focus on improvement? While that’s true to an extent, it doesn’t preclude you from refining your flowing within the parameters of your characteristic approach. Here’s how you do that:

First, leverage the bevy of resources on flowing. Read David Cheshier’s “25 Tips for Taking a Better Flowsheet.” Read Isaiah McPeak’s chapter on flowing in Upside Down Debate. Read Nathanael Morgan’s article on tagging warrants.

Second, design drills that isolate and fortify the skills underpinning flowing. A few ideas:

  • Handwriting/Typing: Some debaters excessively concentrate on their flow’s aesthetic—immaculate calligraphy isn’t the standard; if it’s legible from the lectern, it’s sufficient. Others prioritize speed to the detriment of intelligibility—you will neglect necessary responses if you don’t adequately capture them. You must (1) determine your unique equilibrium between speed and legibility and (2) improve both through frequent notetaking. As with all muscles, you can boost the stamina of your hands through exercise, so take every conceivable opportunity to handwrite things. If you compete in a league that permits electronic flowing, the same principles apply to increasing your typing speed and accuracy.
  • Listening: Flowing requires you to apprehend the oftentimes complex relationship of claims and warrants immediately. Flow debate videos, podcasts, online lectures (I’m a major fan of Yale Courses) in as much detail as you can, then reconstruct the presentation from your notes to test your comprehension.
  • Cognitive Multitasking: Moreover, you must simultaneously generate responses to your opponents’ arguments and convert the claims and warrants of those responses into pithy tags. I didn’t grasp how extensively flowing taxed one’s mental reserves until I sustained a mild concussion (from colliding with a glass door like some deranged bird, true story) and struggled to flow during the recovery process. To drill this, always include a column in your everyday notetaking for your reactions and responses—for instance, if you attend church like the majority of Ethos’s readership, jot down your reflections on sermons in a column adjacent to your sermon notes. Watch videos from political figures or pundits with whom you vehemently disagree and flow scathing (and pristinely tagged) responses. The more you cultivate notetaking as a dialogic—rather than a transcriptive—process, the more you’ll augment your cognitive multitasking.

Third, broaden your horizons through exchanging flowing strategies with other debaters. The profusion of approaches to flowing provides you near-infinite access to acquiring new techniques. To that end, I surveyed some current and former competitors on their unique flowing methodologies.

For LD, I flow on white printer paper and don’t demarcate columns with lines since oftentimes I’ll scribble initial responses adjacent to the constructive and synthesize those into a more coherent outline during prep time, so I don’t want to be limited by artificially narrow speech columns. I also flow CX questions in a “column” on the left side of my opponent’s speech; for instance, if I’m affirmative, the sequence is: CX, NC, initial responses to NC, 1AR, NR, initial responses to NR, 2AR. For TP, I flow each argument/category of argument on a separate sheet of paper.

yours truly 🙂

“I flow each independent argument/contention on a separate sheet of white printer paper”

Jadon Buzzard, Ethos CEO and Head Coach

“a) I don’t draw columns before the round; I draw them as they come [and] b) neg block in one column”

Ben Brown, Ethos Blog Manager

“What I do is have three main sections going from top to bottom. The first is the flow of actual arguments and tags. The second is CX question and the third is comments I have for the speaker. I try to make it so that the text in the column directly to the right of the previous one is a response to the previous column and row.”

Justin Marwad, Ethos Coach

“I flow all constructives left to right (aside from my own) and the final rebuttals wherever I have room on the page”

Jeremy Mosbey, Ethos Blogger and Legends Member

“When I flow, I try to draw lines from argument to argument as much as possible to keep organization, but if it’s a new argument, I’ll put it under the area that I keep the responses. When I hear a tag I write it down word for word (with abbreviations for time sake) in order to encompass the full intent of the argument I’m flowing. After I write the tag I’ll write in parentheses anything that’s important to the argument like numbers, dates, credentials, or direct quotes. At its basics, my flowing strategy is to write down every tag my opponent gives and link them through responses. But not every opponent helps me or my judge keep our flows clean by tagging, so there’s usually some connecting of dots I have to do to keep it maintained. Lastly, if I find myself not writing anything down at the moment, I look at the judge and see if they are, because if it’s on their flow, it’s important that I put it on my flow as well.”

Cade Goebel, Ethos Legends Member

“So, I think flowing is all about what works for you. I’m objectively a terrible ‘flower’ but I write down what I want to remember. Everything I hear in round usually just goes into a virtual flow in my mind, but in order to unleash the information I’ve stored in my brain, I include keywords in my flow that will trigger my memory. In my opinion, no way of flowing is somehow ‘superior.’ If flowing every speech, every argument, and every tag makes you a better, more consistent and accurate debater, then you should. That’s the only ‘methodology’ I can recommend. Go into a round, try a method, and if it works perfectly, stick with it. While my flow may look pathetic, it’s exactly all the information that I needed to remember in order to make my arguments in a logical and simple way for the judges to understand. Will my ‘non-flowing’ approach work for you? Maybe not. But what will work for you is exactly what you should pursue. Don’t get bought by the theory that some method of flowing is superior, because at the end of the day, flowing is all about triggering your memory of arguments occurring during the round. How you do that is, well, how you do that.”

Cyrus Aryani, Ethos Legends Member

“My partner and I typically prescript our points in the 1NC, so I audially listen to all the points in the 1AC, rather than flow them to pick up on any inconsistencies or pieces of evidence I might need/things to point out to my partner to ask in CX. I flow the 2AC (incorrectly placed on the 2NC slot LOL) to build my responses in the 1NR, and typically pick 2-3 responses written in a single line fashion to each argument, flowing them down haphazardly. for the 1AR, I once again listen to every detail of the speech and relay potential responses, mistakes, drops etc. to my partner who is focused on his 2NR preparation. by this point in the round we have 5 minutes of prep, and we take that time to translate the thoughts in my brain to my partners flow. typically one half of the round is flowed on my sheet and the other on my partners so that each speech is being flowed by one and fully concentrated on by the other”

Justus Aryani, Ethos Legends Member

Hopefully you found this helpful to turbocharge your flowing… let me know additional questions below!

Joel Erickson coaches Lincoln-Douglas debate for Ethos and British parliamentary debate at Wheaton College, where he studied philosophy.

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