6 Key Strategies Against Paragraph Theory

by Sam Natbony

Today’s abuse is often caused by theory itself rather than traditionally abusive arguments such as a prioris and skepticism. Paragraph theory arguments have become prevalent in affirmative cases where debaters load cases with theoretical specifications that constrain the negative advocacy. It is uncommon to watch a round where there isn’t at least one paragraph theory shell in an affirmative case. Some common arguments include interpretations like, “the negative must defend the converse”, “the negative must concede to the aff standard”, “the neg must read a counterplan”, etc. Although these arguments are normally very low quality, they continue to permeate the community and win rounds. In order to understand how to beat this strategy, it is important to first understand what motivates debaters to read these arguments in affirmative cases:

They are very short time investments in affirmative cases, whereas reading a full shell in the 1AR requires allocating substantially more time in an already time-pressed 1AR. Even if the negative doesn’t end up violating most shells, their presence will force the negative to waste a lot of time.

These arguments are normally sprinkled throughout cases, which make them easy to miss, ensuring a quick ballot story for the 1AR.

Many of the theoretical interpretations used are such low quality that the only possible way to win off of them against a competent theory debater is if they are hidden in case.

Although this strategy is extremely gimmicky, it continues to win in plenty of rounds across the circuit simply because people tend to misunderstand the most efficient ways to respond to it. Here are some strategies you can use against debaters who use paragraph theory arguments as a crutch:

FIRST, be dominant in cross-examination. Pin down exactly what you need to do to avoid a theory debate. Many of these theory spikes make it almost impossible for the negative to formulate an advocacy that meets all of the shells. Even if each spike on an individual level makes sense, in the aggregate, they are likely to severely disadvantage the negative. Some good questions to ask in CX are:

What NC can I read that meets every theoretical interpretation in the AC? Say that you do not want to have a theory debate. This will have two strategic implications Either: i) the affirmative will not be able to name an advocacy that meets all of their spikes in which case you have proven your abuse or ii) They are only able to name very narrow and disadvantageous negative positions, which make it structurally harder to negate. In either case, you have successfully supercharged the link for the theory shell you plan to read in the NC.

Please tell me in one sentence what a fair negative advocacy looks like under all of your interpretations. The affirmative will likely proceed to ramble and list off 10 sentences worth of theoretical specifications. While they do that you should undoubtedly make fun of how silly they sound. This question is intended to make the AC seem absurd and get the judge to want to vote for you.

SECOND, generate reasons why they violate their own interpretations. Many times affirmatives will blindly read these shells without making sure they meet all of their own shells. This is preferable to reading counter-interpretations and defense to all their shells since a) it is a smaller time commitment, b) reading counter-interpretations to shells you meet is an utter waste of time, and c) it allows you to hijack their own theory offense, which you can claim outweighs the rest of their shells since this is an abuse story that you BOTH agree upon. If they have 10 paragraph theory arguments in the aff and you read 1-2 violations to each of them and attach a voter, they could have up to 20 arguments they have to deal with in the 1AR, with a minimal time investment on your part. Another strategy is to make numerous “you bites” on one shell that you clearly meet (go for text of the interpretation over spirit if you meet their text, so that you can garner semantic violations), and then make a ton of reasons for why that shell comes first and outweighs the abuse claims from the other shells. This is a unique case where defense on the other shells may actually become quite worthwhile, because it now becomes weighing for why you have a stronger link to the voters on the shell that they violate. 

You will not always be able garner high quality violations to AC theory arguments. The important thing to note is that it is okay to make low quality arguments as for why they violate. The arguments in the affirmative are already constructed in a blippy and under-developed manner, so making some arguments of a similar nature is just a part of the game. For example, if they have a reason why the negative must defend the converse and read reasons why skepticism means presumption in the AC, you could say they violate their own shell by claiming skepticism ground through presumption. In reality, they probably do not violate since presumption is not “offense” per say, but the argument still intuitively holds. Finally, if you utilize this strategy, make sure to point out that any interpretations that specify what the “negative” must do, also apply to the affirmative since the standards don’t justify why it is uniquely bad for the negative to employ that strategy.

THIRD, read your own preclusive theory. The best strategy, if available, is to pick a shell that has nothing to do with paragraph theory so that they a) won’t be prepped on it and b) will have to rethink their strategy for the 1AR (for instance, they might have been thinking, if they run theory I’ll go for drop the argument and go for substance). Since these debaters often go for drop the argument, it might be helpful to run a shell that would mean drop the aff advocacy, like T or theory on their omitting to do something in the AC, so dropping the argument would be functionally like dropping them. Try to take the high ground in this theory debate. Since their shells most likely have weak abuse claims, use this opportunity to run theory on something that is genuinely abusive so you have an easier job weighing the shells. One great strategy would be to read a topicality shell since you can both weigh the standards of your T shell against any theory shells they extend in the 1AR, and also, more importantly, structurally preclude their shells by making reasons why T outweighs theory. Some examples of arguments you can make here are:

We have years to craft theory norms but only 2 months to talk about topical norms, so we need to talk about T now since we have less time to make a difference about the way we debate the topic.

The ballot asks who did the better debating and the judge literally cannot evaluate that question if the AC is non-topical because it isn’t affirming.

Reading these T preclusion arguments are no-risk for the negative since if T is evaluated before theory, the affirmative can no longer win on the highest theoretical layer since the negative doesn’t have a T burden. The negative also doesn’t have to worry about a 1AR collapse to a counter-interpretation on T with an RVI. The paragraph theory shells in the AC are likely such low quality that affs would be hesitant to open up the RVI debate for fear of losing on a strong counter-interpretation to any one of the numerous junk shells in the AC.

If you decide to read theory on their spikes in the AC it is important not to read generic shells like “spikes bad” or “paragraph theory bad”, but rather read nuanced interpretations that are specific to the way in which they have employed paragraph theory. This will get the 1AR off of frontlines and force the aff to engage in a theory debate they may not be prepared on. One commonly read example is that debaters ‘must number all theory spikes”. I don’t think this is the best strategy for a couple of reasons: First, the marginal offense linking back to the interpretation is not particularly strong. I don’t see a great reason why it is substantially fairer to separate spikes with bolded numbers as opposed to separating them with bolded words such as “moreover” or “furthermore,” which is what most debaters do. Second, I think Cross-examination does truly check abuse in this case. If you asked them during CX (or even prep), they would have probably separated and listed the spikes out for you in a separate document. Third, some of their spikes will be numbered in the AC, which makes you susceptible to a 1AR that goes heavily for drop the argument for the aff and just extends the shells that you dropped and violate. You want to read a shell that is guaranteed to come preclusive to ALL of their spikes. 

A good one to read says: “All theoretical interpretations with potential ballot implications read in the AC must have an explicit voter (including drop the debater vs. drop the argument) and a list of potential violations.” A good standard you can read for this interpretation would be strategy skew. Not reading a voter in the AC puts the negative in a double bind where they are forced to either a) read counter-interpretations to all shells they violate with a pre-emptive RVI in case the affirmative makes it offensive in the 1AR. In this instance, the negative wastes a lot of time, since a smart affirmative debater would never attach a voter to a theory debate that the negative is ahead on. Or b) the negative doesn’t read counter-interpretations (under-covers the spikes), in which case the affirmative just attaches a voter and violations in the 1AR. At that point, since the interpretation was conceded, it is too late for the negative to read a new counter-interpretation and accordingly cannot access the RVI. In both parts of the double bind, the negative the negative wastes a ton of time on arguments that are basically defensive. If you employ this strategy, it is important to make an explicit reason why meta-theory comes first. This is strategic since it prevents the affirmative from weighing any of their theory offense in the constructive against the negative’s meta-theory.

In addition, it is important to note that when you read your own preclusive theory, you need to respond to any preclusion that the affirmative reads for his/her own shells in addition to common defensive theory spikes that would interact with negative theory. These include (but are not limited to), “CX Checks”, “Negative must weigh abuse against AC structural skew”, “Drop the argument for the affirmative”, “All negative shells are counter-interpretations”, etc. If the AC is loaded with arguments of this nature, it may not be worth the time investment to read your own theory, and the other strategies listed in this article may be more viable. Regardless, if there are a lot of defensive theory spikes in the AC and access to NC theory is crucial to your strategy, it is important to make an overview claiming that the negative reserves the right to respond to spikes in the 2NR (or at least their new applications) since their implications in the AC are unclear. We will not be discussing answers to these spikes in this article, but stay tuned for an article addressing great responses to common affirmative defensive spikes.

FOURTH, depending on your judge’s views on theory, you can read an offensive counter-interpretation (OCI) against shells in the affirmative case. For example, if they read AFC, you could read an offensive counter-interpretation that says: “The negative must be allowed to contest the affirmative framework.” Many judges do not think these are reasons to vote absent an RVI, but some do. Make sure you check your judge’s paradigm before employing this strategy. Alternatively, if your judge does not vote on OCIs, you could read a long counter-interpretation, with an RVI that is not couched in terms of a fairness claim like reciprocity or strategy skew. It would be illogical to claim, “drop the debater” and then read an RVI with a reciprocity warrant. Instead, make norm-setting arguments that would allow you to access the RVI in instances where you were the one who read the voter. If, the aff reads a voter with drop the debater in the AC, you can obviously read reciprocity warrants for the RVI. Again, be careful with this strategy since smart affirmatives may get up in the next speech and claim you don’t access the RVI because they didn’t read a violation in the affirmative case and then proceed to go for substance.

FIFTH, read reasonability. The shells that are read in ACs as paragraph theory are read in the initial speech for a reason. They are normally junk shells. As such, their links to fairness and educational are normally very small and can be precluded with a well- justified reasonability paradigm. Make sure to structure your reasonability paradigm so that you actually have a bright line for what it means to be reasonable. 

SIXTH, you can read some paragraph theory of your own. Even if you are opposed to paragraph theory as a strategy in debate, making some of your own paragraph theory arguments is extremely strategic. Sometimes to beat these abusive strategies, you need to debate on their level in addition to employing the strategies discussed above. I’ve never understood why only affirmatives employ paragraph theory. Negative paragraph theory is more devastating given how time-crunched the 1AR is already. This strategy would be best executed by reading a full shell with a voter and then, while on specific arguments in the AC, embedding paragraph theory interpretations in your block dump. Make sure to cross-apply your voter after reading those embedded paragraph theory shells so your judge knows that they are offensive.

Paragraph theory strategies seem very intimidating on the surface, but in reality, they are easy to handle once you understand why people read them and effective ways at dismantling these ACs. Not all of these strategies will work in every single round, but at least a couple will always be a smart option regardless of the type of paragraph theory that you are debating. Depending on the number of spikes, content of the spikes, and what they actually prevent you from doing in round, you may only want to employ a select number of these strategies or hybrids of a couple of them. In employing these strategies make sure you do only what is necessary to dismiss the paragraph theory arguments in the AC. Do not waste time. Paragraph theory debaters are motivated to read these arguments because they hope you will over-cover somewhere, either on theory or substance. To beat these cases it becomes more important than ever to not only have a viable strategy, but also to have confidence in your ability to allocate time efficiently. 

-Note: If you have topics you’d like NSD staffers to clarify or write on please comment them below. Articles to be released soon include strategies against the kritik, answers to common affirmative spikes, tips on crafting nuanced theory interps, and much more.

Thanks to Daisy Massey, Jessica Levy, and Grant Reiter for help

  • Paras Kumar

    Great article. Two other thought: judges can counterbalance the absurdity of numerous paragraph theory shells by just saying that they won’t vote on paragraph theory. Additionally, judges can require spikes to be fully explained (e.g. my paradigm on the judge philosophy page). I found that as soon as I did that, affs were rarely spike heavy in front of me.

    Judging sucks, but not listening to 93434234 spikes in the AC made it slightly less sucky.

  • Regan Grishaber

    Nice work Sam–this article contains a lot of useful insights that debaters can benefit from. However, in your second point recommending that debaters generate reasons why the aff violates his/her own interpretation, you say,

    “You will not always be able garner high quality violations to AC theory arguments. The important thing to note is that it is okay to make low quality arguments as for why they violate. The arguments in the affirmative are already constructed in a blippy and under-developed manner, so making some arguments of a similar nature is just a part of the game.”

    While I personally believe the practice of purposefully making low quality arguments is educationally bankrupt, I think more people will be persuaded by the strategic reasons against such an approach. In general I agree that garnering violations against AC paragraph theory interps can be strategic, but the reality is that making blippy, underdeveloped, and generally weak arguments to establish a violation should be viewed as a bad time investment against good debaters.

    “Low quality arguments” as to why the aff violates his/her interpretation are easier for the aff to answer than otherwise high quality, or better yet true, arguments because they are, well, “low quality arguments.” Such arguments are either “blippy and underdeveloped” as you describe, or contain objectively false premises–both types of arguments are unstrategic.

    Any blippy or underdeveloped argument is easier for the affirmative to answer, since by definition it will contain a weaker (or even missing) warrant to support the claim. If an argument as to why the aff violates his/her own interpretation is just a blip, then it would be sufficient for the aff to simply point out the missing warrant, explain why the warrant is necessary for the violation to occur, and move on, generating a beneficial time tradeoff. For instance, in responding to a paragraph theory shell like NIBS bad, if the neg makes a blippy argument such as, “he/she violates his/her own interp because his/her standard is insufficient for me to win under,” such an argument includes the claim that the aff standard/burden is also a NIB, but misses the next step of explaining why the standard functions insufficiently for the neg. The nature of theory debate is such that we don’t assume one has violated the rule until it’s proven that he/she has. To treat theory debate otherwise would generate obviously absurd conclusions, such as having to make explicit “I meets” to paragraph theory shells which are otherwise implicitly met. (For brevity’s sake I’ll assume this point to be obviously indisputable, but if you disagree I can expound on this in a further comment.) That said, pointing out the lack of the necessary warrant which justifies the violation would prove the neg hasn’t adequately generated a violation, meaning these “blippy and underdeveloped” violations are easily responded to by a valid “no warrant” explanation. So, in the NIBS case, if the aff simply said, “he/she lacks a warrant for why my standard is insufficient, they simply assert that it is, so he/she hasn’t done the necessary work to justify a violation,” this would be a fully adequate way of dealing with the poorly developed violation. Debaters, then, place themselves at a disadvantage by making low-quality violations, since these bad arguments can be effectively dealt with by simple “no warrant” responses.

    In addition to blippy or underdeveloped violations, there are also some arguments that are just patently false and an assertion to the contrary suffices as a response. You sort of allude to this concept in your own example, since you concede that “in reality they probably do not violate since presumption is not ‘offense’ per say.” In this example, presumption by definition only applies when there is no offense, so the fact that the aff has actual offense implies he/she isn’t defending presumption and instead defends an obligation; in this case, presumption would merely be a last-case scenario, with obligation the default interp. You can see how such an explanation entails a definitional understanding of what presumption is, so there really isn’t much debate to be had on such an argument. In cases like this where the aff is able to identify a premise that is simply invalid, it’s an easy time tradeoff for the aff to simply point out that the neg’s understanding of presumption or some other issue is by definition misguided.

    Also, making violation arguments that one knows to be false can seriously backfire. Returning to the “nibs bad” example, if the neg says the aff violates because they have multiple contentions which all have to be disproven, a util aff might be able to disprove the abuse in this scenario, since presumably both debaters could weigh the offense between the various contentions; in contrast, the aff could argue that the NC offense isn’t weighable, meaning by the same logic of the “false” violation, the neg would violate the “nibs bad” shell while the aff wouldn’t. This issue could apply to a lot more scenarios than expected since the nature of theory is such that is constrains the burdens of both debaters within the round, so making faulty arguments with relation to these burdens can easily change the direction of the round in a way that is seriously disadvantageous to the person making the low quality arguments.

    Essentially, I believe garnering violations on aff paragraph theory interps is only strategic when the arguments are of good quality. The time it takes to respond to an argument doesn’t correlate 1:1 with the time it takes to make the argument, and in the case of the interp/violation debate, time allocation should be viewed as a function of both the length AND the quality of the argument. So, I personally would advise debaters against making violations they know to be poorly developed or outright false, because against equally good debaters who know the correct responses, the time allocation isn’t in one’s favor.

    • Sam Natbony

      Regan, I generally agree with a lot of what you have said but wanted to add a couple of points to your arguments. I tried to boil down your post into two main arguments that I found (correct me if I’m wrong):

      1) False/blippy violations are a waste of time since they are either a) patently false or b) can be easily dismissed as not proving a violation sufficiently.

      2) False violations can sometimes backfire if they justify false logic that the aff can escape but the negative bites into.

      With regard to the number 1, I’d like to clarify a couple things: First, I was not encouraging debaters to out right run “blippy” and “under-developed arguments”, but rather was just pointing out that even if this practice can be framed as uneducational, the aff is already employing that strategy. So, if your judge is okay with these types of arguments permeating in round, it is okay for the negative to engage in this type of debate simply because the aff initiated it. Second, I agree that a lot of times these false violations COULD be easily dismissed, but my point is that affirmatives in reality (at least in my experience) way over cover on these arguments. I won a very high stakes round at TOC my junior year because I made 4 violations to a NIBs bad shell in the AC (took about 15 seconds to make), and the 1AR proceeded to spend 2 minutes line-by-lining them in the 1AR. The fear of losing on these types of arguments causes people to over cover. This is not to say that in every case, affirmatives will over cover, but that in many cases they will. So, debaters should keep in mind who their opponent is and consider how they would react to this strategy. Third, I completely agree with you that if the violation is utter nonsense the argument is not worth making. But, arguments that questionably violate the interpretation (like the presumption argument in the article) are strategic to make because it takes a longer time to explain why those arguments are irrelevant to the interpretation. Simply saying “presumption isn’t offense” isn’t necessarily responsive given the interpretation: “The negative must defend prohibition, not permissibility”, since that interpretation would seems to preclude the neg from accessing any permissibility arguments whether through topical offense, presumption, or any other means. At the very least, my point is that these “better-developed, but false” violations are likely to waste a bunch of time in the 1AR

      With regard to your second point, you are completely correct. Debaters should not make violations that they could arguably bite into. When brainstorming a lot of violations it is difficult sometimes to consider how one’s own arguments interact with every single argument made on the AC. I think in this case it becomes ever more important for negatives to think about the way in which each argument they make both explicitly and implicitly functions. However, I don’t think this is an indict of this strategy of reading violations, per say, just a warning that debaters who employ this strategy should be extra cautious to be sure they don’t bite into their own logic.

      More generally, as states in the article, I don’t personally believe that this violation strategy should be executed alone, but rather in conjunction with other strategies outlined in the article. It may be better to only come up with a couple high quality and well-developed violations, and then proceed to execute one of the other 5 strategies.

  • anon’16

    Great article! One question. On the sixth point, what makes neg paragraph theory different from a normal NC shell? Does neg paragraph theory preempt an arg the aff might make in the 1AR?

    • Sam Natbony

      The idea of preempting a potential affirmative 1AR strategy is a very interesting idea and could be viable in many rounds. One example that comes to mind is that if the negative is worried about a 1AR that kicks case and goes all in on turns to the AC, it may be worth it to have a severance bad paragraph theory pre-empt in the NC. This forces the aff to invest at least 45 seconds to a minute addressing an argument that is a minimal time investment for the neg, but an important issue for the aff to address since the entirety of their 1AR strat is reliant on beating it. In this case, the shell would be preemptive in the sense that the violation would not occur until the aff severs in the 1AR. This neg paragraph theory does not necessarily need to be preemptive, though. Negative paragraph theory would likely be read as a response embedded in a dump to the AC. For example, if they read a polls framework, you could make one of your responses to the framework a reason why descriptive standards are unfair. This is differentiated from neg theory by a) its location- it is flowed on the AC instead of labelled as an explicit off case and b) its format- it would include all 4 parts (in a non-shell format) but likely include a cross-applied voter from a shell you read in explicit shell format. In this case the violation is not preemptive since the descriptive framework has already been read, so the abuse has already occurred.

      • Paras Kumar

        ^This is also a fantastic suggestion for young debaters following.

        Real quick though: aff kicking fwk and going for case turns in the 1ar IS NOT severance. It never has been and never will be. Neg gives the aff the right to kick by contesting framework. Framework frames substance, so aff has the right to concede its framing of the debate was wrong and argue under the negs should neg choose to call out the affs framing of the debate. If the neg wants to prevent that, DONT READ AN NC!

        This argument has been dumb and will continue to be. The strat/time skew is your fault

  • Michael O’Krent

    “It is uncommon to watch a round where there isn’t at least one paragraph theory shell in an affirmative case.”
    Speaking from the West Coast, I can comfortably say that at tournaments out here, there are lots of rounds that don’t involve paragraph theory. In fact, most perennially successful schools in the West look down on heavy paragraph theory, and the culture of the community (and judging) more or less follows. This article is super well-written and discusses some great ways to deal with paragraph theory. But I still think the best way to avoid heavy paragraph theory is to just not go to tournaments in the Northeast. Paragraph theory need not be so ubiquitous.

    • Mathew Pregasen

      But that’s not possible for a majority, and pretty much half, of the United States based on the east coast. Can’t really tell schools that have difficulty going even more than 200 miles to go to California just to avoid paragraph theory. West Coast has a different style which is fair but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the east coast – diversity in debate anyway is best

      • Michael O’Krent

        Yes, you’re absolutely right. It would be absurd to tell everyone who doesn’t like paragraph theory to come to California and only debate here. My point is just that paragraph theory is not universal. As such, the priority of having super-detailed strategies to deal with it isn’t super high – I want to put an asterisk on the applicability of Sam’s suggestions.
        As for diversity, there are probably some diverse practices that are good and some other diverse practices that aren’t. The normative question of whether paragraph theory is good or bad doesn’t bear on the descriptive question of its prevalence.

    • Sam Natbony

      Thanks for the input Michael. My point is not to say every single round nowadays involves tens of paragraph theory shells. As I say in the article, it is fairly common for rounds to include “one” or a couple common offensive AC theory arguments like “converse”, “AFC”, “Negative must defend informed consent”, etc. The themes in this article still apply extremely well in rounds where only minimal paragraph theory is employed. AFC, for example, which traditionally was ran primarily on the West coast, is a paragraph theory argument insofar as it is not labeled in explicit shell format (A, B, C, D). Maybe, west and east coast debaters just use different language, but by paragraph theory, I am referring to any theory spike in the affirmative case with potentially offensive implications in the 1AR. From my experience (even at many West coast tournaments) most theory pre-empts in ACs are not worded as explicit shells. More generally, many extremely successful debaters this year are still employing paragraph theory to win rounds, so even if it is not as prevalent on the West Coast (which I disagree with, as stated above), it is of great importance for any circuit debater to be equipped with the tools necessary to combat the strategy. Instead of “not going to tournaments in the Northeast,” as you assert all debaters should do, I believe that debaters should learn how to handle every possible strategy so as to become as well rounded as possible.

      • Michael O’Krent

        The language question is an interesting one. I think you’re right that the coasts tend to speak on different terms. I tend to associate paragraph theory with arguments that are intentionally underdeveloped. Your definition seems to be broader, encompassing AFC arguments as they commonly pop up on the West Coast.
        In my mind, AFC doesn’t count as paragraph theory because it’s usually presented in shell form in all but numbering. There’s an interpretation, a violation is offered in the 1AR if the NC violates, and there tend to be explicitly labeled standards and voters. So while by your definition AFC would count as paragraph theory, I’ve never found AFC to any specially tailored response strategy like those you suggest in the article. The underlying distinction that necessitates employing different strategies is whether all the traditional parts of a theory shell are distinct (like in separate sentences or paragraphs or something).
        And of course, I don’t believe that nobody should go to tournaments in the Northeast. West Coast schools have that option, but school in or near New York and Boston don’t. And many people want to attend the good tournaments the Northeast offers as well. Avoiding the Northeast is my favorite strategy, but I don’t mean to universalize. My point is that emphasis on certain strategic tools can vary by region, and so what skills are considered most important to learn should vary as well.

    • Sam Azbel

      I was at Berkeley and Stanford last year. I read a lot of paragraph theory…Seems like national tournaments in Cali that attract debaters from all over the country will still run into these arguments.