The structure of our activity has made being affirmative a terrifying prospect. For many, especially in important rounds, it resonates as a death sentence. Evidence in favor of this fear is quite substantial; there is a structural inequality of speech times, side-bias, robust prep-outs, and more, all of which favor the negative. As a result, nearly every elimination debate at major tournaments results in the winner of the flip choosing to negate.
Yet, I still have a great deal of hope in the strategic value of affirming. During my career I consistently flipped affirmative. This included bid-rounds and late elimination rounds of tournaments such as Apple Valley, Blake, and the Glenbrooks. If I wasn’t truly prepared to contest a particular affirmative, I never threw something together because of the vacuous power of “side-bias”. I would simply affirm. This is a comfortability that I attempt to instill in my debaters as well; it is simply unstrategic to excise half the topic from your considerations for elimination flips. Additionally, many of these facts that claim objectivity are circumvented by strong preparation, strategy, and debating.
This article is the beginning of a three part series entitled “The Art of Affirmation”. In each segment I will analyze one of the speeches delivered by the affirmative in the hopes of increasing comfortability, confidence, and capacity to affirm. In this particular iteration I will deal with the affirmative constructive, explaining how to strategically write and frontline an affirmative case. Additionally, I will use this article to make general remarks about affirmative strategy such as flipping in an elimination round, having new affirmatives, and handling prep-outs.
Part A – Preparing an Affirmative
There is a fundamental mantra from which I approach writing affirmatives: “Every card must have a use, and use as few cards as possible.” I’ve found this rule to be a surefire way to produce cohesive, structurally sound, and strategic affirmatives.
Every card should have a unique strategic usage. You should interrogate each of the pieces of evidence in your affirmative and consider how they might be used. If you find yourself concluding that a particular card has the same purpose as another, pick which one is worse and remove it. This process ensures that you both understand the multitude of functions that your evidence can have and maximize the amount of diverse strategic utilities you include in your affirmative.
This leads to the second part of the mantra, that you should use as few cards as possible. At its simplest, this is just pure mathematics; it takes longer to extend two cards than it does one. This rule also thwarts the devastating clunkiness that can accompany an argument with a plethora of cards attached to it. If there are too many cards to extend you become lugged down in rebuttal speeches and end up sucking away precious time. It also, however, has content-based benefits. Using fewer cards usually means using a single longer card over multiple shorter ones. These longer cards tend to contain multiple arguments within them, connecting them together in the author’s own words and flow. This removes the gaps between parts of link chains and makes a more cohesive argument overall. Furthermore, longer cards tend to contain more robust, and diverse, warrants, giving you a leg up in the 1AR by giving you nuanced lines to point out and extend to deal with negative arguments in a quick and deadly manner. Debaters have habits of answering only taglines, thus, when your cards contain more than what the tagline states you have an advantage. Lastly, it is rarely useful to read four cards all of which can be chalked up to saying, for example, capitalism is a societal evil. Your opponents will simply group them and respond to them as a singular argument, and forcing yourself to choose one raises the quality demands you place on your evidence, forcing the use of a single card that is strongly warranted over four that are measly. Quality over quantity.
An important component of preparing an affirmative is having robust extensions and frontlines. You wouldn’t send an army into battle without backup and supplies, and you shouldn’t run headlong into affirming without them either. There are integral components of any affirmative and to do without them is to do yourself a massive disservice and put yourself behind the competition.
Extensions, especially for an affirmative, should be barebones. You don’t have time to spew a description of your affirmative like a 1800s Romance poet. Explain the claim, warrant, and impact of your argument and move on, unless, of course, there’s a particular trick or nuance that is integral to your strategy. Any other nuances, flourishes, or extras, if they’re truly needed, will be explained on the line-by-line of the negative responses anyway. If you’re extensions are too robust you’ll find yourself with two minutes off the clock in the 1AR with no actual arguing having been done and the negative licking their chops like a wolf ready to consume you.
Frontlines should be robust. Start by wringing out your affirmative for generic arguments that can be used against whole classes of off-case positions: this argument applies to all identity ks, this argument applies to policy-making counterplans, this arguments applies to extinction claims, etc. This is the base that you can always lean on to generate some sort of response to these types of positions. Then, from there, determine which arguments are common on a particular topic and frontline those, getting increasingly specific as necessary, ensuring a wide coverage of most arguments that people can throw at you. Additionally, ensure that you take time between rounds, as positions are broken at tournaments and you hear 1NCs against your affirmative, to frontline those as well.
Part B – General Strategic Notes and Commentary
There is very little to which debaters can claim dominion over. You cannot control your opponents or judges, or the strategy of your opponent, and you may not even have control over your rebuttal speeches. However, there is one instance in which you have absolute control, and that is your affirmative. You may write negative strategies for days, but if they don’t apply to the affirmatives you debate, they end up useless. But, when it comes to your affirmative, you choose.
This leads to the first strategic benefit of being affirmative: you set the terms of the debate. The negative has a burden of rejoinder in which they must respond to the affirmative. This isn’t a benefit to be taken lightly. With this in mind, you should consciously put together affirmatives that play to your strengths and force negatives to engage on your turf. Be it an entirely non-topical performance or a strictly topical plan, you set the stage.
With this comes a harsh truth: any flaws in your arguments are your fault. The world is on your shoulders when it comes to writing an affirmative, you have weeks, if not months, to prepare and perfect the delivery of the 1AC speech. It is the only speech in debate that isn’t reflexive and there’s no guess-work involved. If it is anything less than perfect, less than the material manifestation of your idealistic conception, it is a result of a lack of work, dedication, or care.
In another realm of strategy, elimination round flipping is not merely a chore to be done with, but a strategic entity all its own. Flipping affirmative, though rarely considered, should always be on your mind. It makes little sense to prematurely remove half of your options. There are a variety of instances in which flipping affirmative has massive strategic benefits. For example, if you’re panel has already seen your affirmative in prelims and they have a strong understanding of its content they will require less explanation in rebuttals which favors you over your opponent, especially if the affirmative is confusing. If you’re unsure of your negative preparation, you should, of course, consider negating. You can always lean back on your affirmative. Lastly, a variety of contingent opponent-based situations may call for affirming such as them being awful at 1AR theory or you having a great prep-out to their only negative strategy.
If you are so inclined, it is also advantageous to have entirely new affirmatives ready to break in important rounds. This can offset side-bias by surprising your opponent and forcing people dependent on prep into an uncomfortable situation. It also allows you to indicate that you will be breaking new when you mutually disclose affirmatives before the flip. People oftentimes don’t want to negate against new affirmatives and it might snag you a free round to negate, which, as described above, is a pretty good spot to be in.
You should also hold your ground against a prep-out. This is especially true if it is a potential prep-out that you have no evidence of existing. The glaring reason is that people are oftentimes horrible at creating comprehensive breakdowns of people’s affirmatives. It will almost always be worse than you expect. Furthermore, no matter how specific, nuanced, or stack it is, you should stay confident. Oftentimes these debaters are lost the moment the affirmative sees a card from their case read back at them, a new specific counterplan, etc., without actually considering the true quality of the arguments presented. Cool, calm, and collected is a key disposition to take on. Additionally, prepare yourself if you feel a prep-out is incoming – don’t just panic! – read through your evidence, refresh yourself on nuances, and stay on top of your game and ahead of the negatives potential contestations.
It ain’t easy being affirmative; it requires hard work, true grit, and a bit of masochism. Yet, it has to get done. Hopefully his commentary has made the pill a bit easier to swallow and instilled a sense of pride in product. I always considered case-writing as a long, arduous, process of artistic expression, and my affirmatives were the fruits of my labor. In that way, debate became less self-enclosed. It became connected to larger concerns of artistry, academic studiousness, and personal enjoyment. I certainly think that is a vision that most of us can get behind.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the next two segments of “The Art of Affirmation”!