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You’re Researching All Wrong. These 4 Steps Will Improve Your Method. 

When I play chess, I watch my opponent’s eyes. As they peer across the board, I can glean massive amounts of information. I can sense fear. I can sense excitement. I can sense when and why my opponent feels that way. From this information, I can observe my opponent’s plan and strategize my own to combat it. 

Chess is a game, and so is debate. Looking ahead and predicting what your opponent might do is a critical part of debate. In fact, it’s one of four steps to an effective research process. 

I’ve previously blogged about how I was able to spend 20-30 hours a week researching for team policy in my senior year of high school debate. Over the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching, the following four steps to research are what I’ve settled on for the most effective researching method.

Step #1: Get A Lay Of The Land 

My fourteen-year-old programming teacher taught me something when I was twelve that I will never forget. 

5 minutes of planning will save you 5 hours of coding.

Me being me, I promptly went on to disregard this golden advice for the next 3 years of my life. It was a mistake. There would be times where I’d have to re-code and sometimes even straight up delete large portions of my code because the code was no longer needed or no longer worked for the job. 

Planning is critical to effective coding and it’s no different in debate. Before you try to write that new affirmative case or write up a fire brief to that negative case no one knows a lot about, you should always stop and take a moment to see what’s going on and get a general sense of what’s going on. 

I find that the best way to do this is to go on the internet and find random news articles or perhaps studies of the case at hand. Feel free to jot notes down on a notepad, or perhaps a Google Doc or Onenote notebook — they will more than likely come in handy later. 

Don’t read entire articles, studies, or papers unless they’re super short. You want to skim read and get through them as fast as possible, with the most information possible. Another don’t is don’t cut cards. Resist the temptation. You’re just trying to get a lay of the land. (If you do find a really fire card though, feel free to copy the paragraph and URL  over to a random document you have open, but don’t spend time cutting.)

 The time you spend on this step really depends on how well you know the background of the current resolution. For finding your first affirmative case of the season, expect this step to take a couple of weeks. NEG briefs will probably take no more than a couple of minutes to an hour, but feel free to take more if you need it for an obscure negative case. 

Step #2: Plan Your Attack

Now that you know the general arguments for and against your position, the next step is to spend some time writing your strategy. 

Perhaps writing paragraphs would help you. Maybe bullet points? Maybe even free-style drawings or perhaps a bubble thinking map? Whatever best helps you plan arguments. 

What I find the most effective personally is to create a normal AFF or NEG brief from a pre-made template. I create headers and tags to structure arguments I think would be good to run. This is the next step after a general strategy, so I prefer to skip right to it since it saves me a bit of time. #lifehacks

Here’s an example: 

Notice how it almost looks like a normal brief, it just has no evidence. I also have a bunch of notes under certain arguments to remind me what cards I was thinking about and that I need to go and find cards that have similar wording to that. This will strengthen your rhetoric over time. Always remember that cards are meant to defend your own logic, not the other way around. 

Here’s another good piece of advice: ONLY put arguments in that you know you can win and that you know will help win you the round. You can always find backup arguments later, you want your main solid hard-core arguments first here. 

And by the way, you will most likely need to come back to the stage of planning several times and update your strat. That’s totally fine, in fact, that’s really good! This is the same in coding. You make a plan before you start coding, but then you constantly come back to the plan and update it and evolve it as you go.

Step #3: Arm your troops 

Once you have a generic structure laid out, go ahead and grab the cards needed for those arguments. In general, I try to find two super credible sources that say the same thing for each argument. Depending on how important the argument is, you might want to card more articles up on it, but only do that after you’re done filling up your structure. 

Step #4: Spike and Then Spike Again

Also known as spiking an argument, this step is my FAVORITE part of researching. For every card, you cut, ALWAYS cut a card to refute your opponent’s strongest response to that argument. And then think about what they would run on your response and card up a response to their response to your response. By the time you’re able to unveil it, you’ll be in the rebuttals and it’ll be impossible for your opponent to come back. 

I’m not sure where I picked up this habit from, but it’s served me well and gotten me far at national competitions where you have the best teams running the strongest arguments against you. 

Going back to the opener: Debate is a game, just like chess. By watching your opponent’s eyes, you can tell a lot about their next move. Likewise, when researching briefs, you need to “watch” your opponent but in advance. Figure out, or make your best-educated guess on, what the AFF is going to run against your amazing DA to their case and then cut a card in response to it.

Albeit: Not For Everyone

I do have to mention… everyone is different. It is unlikely that my exact method of researching will be 100% effective for you. However, that is the beauty of the game of debate! It’s adaptable and changeable. 

That’s exactly why I recommend looking into the most effective research methods by asking coaches and national-level debaters that you may know. That’s a large part of how I crafted the research method above. 

Additionally, have as many conversations with other debaters about how they research themselves. To this end, feel completely free to leave a comment below on what your favorite methods are. I’ll see ya down there! 😎


Justin is a junior at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell and hoping to receive degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. His philosophy in debate is that there are no rules. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not about winning, it’s about having fun. 

You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here. 

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