Novice Instructional Materials

Alfred C. Snider, University of Vermont

The basic skill of note taking (or flowing) in the debate is discussed. This includes: what to write with, what to write on, how many columns to use, use of separate pads, guidelines for leaving sufficient room, symbolic vocabulary, abbreviations vocabulary, tips for special situations. Read an argument and have them flow


Taking notes properly ("flow sheeting" or "flowing" is the debate term) is an essential entry level skill for novice debaters. In order to answer arguments by your opponents, you must be able to write them down so that you can remember them and respond to them in order. Likewise, your flow sheet becomes the text which you use when you is the notes which you speak from.

You must work at improving your flowing and you will never be too good at it. More than any other skill besides speaking itself, flow sheeting is important to your debate experience....and important to winning.


Write in black, it is easier to read. Use something which moves smoothly over the paper and allows you to write quickly. Use something which does not smear. Use something which is comfortable in your hand. Try a medium point pen, though if you write small use a fine point, and if you write large you can get away with a broad point pen. Always have lots of the right kinds of pens.


Most debaters flow on yellow legal pads. Yellow because it is easy to read (especially with black ink!), and a legal size (8.5" x 14") because it allows for more room. Some debaters buy a ream of white legal size paper and just use that as it is more economical. Legal paper in pads allows you to have several pages attached together at the top.


There are 8 speeches in the debate, but you will only need 7 columns. This is because the 2NC-1 NR occur one right after the other without an intervening affirmative speech, so they can share the same column.
Thus, the 7 columns would be: 1AC, 1NC, 2AC, 2NC-1NR, 1AR, 2NR, 2AR. My advice is to draw these columns in on your pages well before the debate starts. You should flow the entire debate, even after you have given your rebuttal, so that you can help your partner. For new issues introduced in 2NC (which happens from time to time) you will only need 4 columns: 2NC, 1AR, 2NR, 2AR.


It is often useful to have several different pads, and put different kinds of arguments on each one. For example, the affirmative case could be on one pad, the negative topicality and procedural arguments could be on another, the negative disadvantages could be on a third pad, and the negative counterplan could be on a fourth pad...depending on if these issues make an appearance at all. This use of separate pads allows you to keep your notes organized around major types of issues in the debate.


As a speech is given, you write down what is being said in that speech's column. If, for example, it is a negative argument against the case made in 1 NC you would flow it on the case pad, in the 1 NC column, next to the part of the case the argument clashes with. But it is very important not to crowd things together. If things are all packed together on your flow it will be hard to refer to it and read from it which you are speaking. Do not be afraid to use many pages, with a different major point on each page. Also, when you flow issues just being introduced into the debate (affirmative case, negative counterplan, etc.) do not try and put them one right under another on your them out. Leave open space in the beginning and then it will be there if and when you need it.


People speak more quickly than you can write, therefore your flow will not contain a word for word version of what you and/or your opponents say, but it will (hopefully) contain a shortened and Meaningful version of the idea they were expressing. One useful way to do that is to use symbols to stand for concepts we commonly encounter in an argumentative situation. By turning their statements into a new symbolic and abbreviated form, we can boil down what they are saying to what they mean.
Logic symbols: Some useful symbols of this type include: [imagine the drawing if it is in brackets]
[arrow up] means increasing or increases.
[arrow down] means decreasing or decreases.
= means is, or the same as
--->, means causes or leads to
> means greater than
< means less than
Also, all of these can be negated (turned into "not") by putting a line through them, so you get not increasing, not decreasing, not equal to or not same as, not lead to or not cause, etc.
Debate symbols:
x piece of evidence used by speaker
? no answer to this
[triangle] change
[small circle with line through it] assertion which should have been proven
[small circle with x through it] evidence does not prove argument claimed

Also, you will develop abbreviations for common debate terms as well as common terms in the topic. If you are making an abbreviation for the first time try just leaving the vowels out, thus "hospital" becomes "hsptl." As you become more familiar with an abbreviation you can drop out more and more characters to increase efficiency.
Debate abbreviations:
AC=aff case
AP=aff plan
VI=voting issue
You will develop your own.
Topic abbreviations:
SP=severe punishment
MM=mandatory minimums
You will develop your own.

When you combine argument and debate symbols with debate and topic abbreviations, you are able to quickly write down what the arguments of your opponent mean in a way that can make sense to you and that you can interpret to the critic.

"Legislating new mandatory minimum sentences would let criminals know that they will do time if they get caught, and so they will think twice about committing more crimes."

"[arrow up] MM ---> percep of crims = [arrow down] Cr"

1. Never give up. If you miss something, get the next argument. Once you stop flowing in a debate, you are opting out of meaningful participation in it.
2. Try and write down everything you can. Pour your entire attention and energy into this task.
3. Ask to see the flows of your coaches and fellow debaters.
4. Practice...go and watch a debate and try to take the best flow you can.
5. Look at your flows and see how many of the techniques in this hand out you have used.
Madison Laird


What is flowing?

Flowing is the informal name for the notetaking process in debate. Although there are many different variations on the general flowing theme, this chapter will broadly describe the specifics involved in the flowing process.

Flowing is evidence that academic debate is much more structured than any other form of debate. Good academic debate follows a careful and recognized pattern for signposting arguments, so that each speaker and the judge in the debate is able to follow the organized refutation of arguments throughout the debate.

Why flowsheet?

Why is flowsheeting necessary to keep track of the arguments? The best reason is that there are usually more arguments brought up in a debate than one person is inclined to be able to remember. Furthermore, when these arguments are responded to, and when there are responses to those responses (and so on!), it sometimes becomes difficult to focus on the issue. Sometimes debaters who do not flow well will lose sight of an argument which had been made three speeches earlier, and may go off on tangent of thought. These cases are a perfect example of not seeing the forest for the trees!

A debater who makes her speech without any clear sense of the organization of the arguments in the debate will be very difficult to flow if her responses to the arguments appear to be in a random order. For example, if the first thing she says in her speech answers the fifth of seven major arguments by the last speaker and the rest of her responding and extending follows a random order, the speech will make much less sense than if the debater were to follow the flow, answering the arguments of the previous speech in the order in which they were presented.

How to flow

Most debaters find it easiest to flow on long legal pads (8 1/2" x 14"). A few flow on considerable larger material, such as large art pads, while some are comfortable flowing on regular 8 1/2" x 11" size paper. Debaters often argue about which pens are best for flowing, some almost superstitiously swearing by a particular brand, others expressing no preference whatsoever.

In any case, since debate is a progression of speeches, paper is roughly divided into columns according to the number of speeches (8), with one major exception: the negative block, which consists of two negative speeches in a row (2NC and 1 NR), should be flowed in one column. There are two reasons for this: first, it is generally expected that the arguments touched upon by the 2NC will not be again dealt with by the 1 NR; second, since 1 AR must respond to both the 2NC and the 1 NR, putting them Into consecutive columns would break the logical sequence of responding to arguments. Think about it this way: why would one put 1 NR next to the 2NC since, even though the 1 NR immediately follows the 2NC, she does not respond to the 1 NR- they are on the same team. Remember this simple rule if you are confused: for flowing purposes, treat the 2NC and the 1 NR as the same speech, even though they are different speeches given by different debaters.

Visualizing the flowsheeting concept, then, a page divided by speeches, without any arguments written down, would look something like this:

As a debate takes place, the arguments of the person speaking are written in the column designated for that person. If the debater is following the flow, they will verbally make the other debaters and the judge aware of the argument to which they are responding. Everyone flowing the debate will then turn, on their flows, to that argument, and begin writing the arguments of that speaker in the area of the flow next to the argument to which the debater is responding.

To oversimplify, consider a situation in which an affirmative team stated its first affirmative case in four contentions, and the first negative speaker answered each one of the affirmative contentions with three arguments, and also chose to present one topicality argument and one disadvantage to the affirmative plan. Then, the second affirmative speaker answered the case arguments, grouping some, conceeding others, and then made five arguments against both the topicality argument and the disadvantage.

Later we will examine the necessity to allow sufficient room for the development of arguments by putting major arguments on different sheets of paper. This flow, for example, should probably occupy at least six sheets of paper, rather than the three which are depicted here. Remember, this is an oversimplification in which arguments are represented by "x'"- these "x's" would actually be the arguments as they were stated in the debate.

Keeping these things in mind, the flow of the debate would look something like this after three speeches:

There are seven important points which may be made to conclude this first lesson on flowing:

First, as a general rule, do not attempt to flow on the back of your paper. Using only the front will avoid any confusion about which arguments are which later in a debate

Second, there is no standard requirement for the number of arguments a particular speaker must have in response to another. There are times when a debater may be confident that one answer is enough to suffice, but there may be times when a debater feels that there are a great number of arguments which they could reasonably offer as responses to a particular argument.

Third, there are times when "grouping arguments" is believed by a debater to be an appropriate strategy. In this case, the second affirmative has chosen to group arguments made by the first negative on both contention two and contention four. Notice, however, that on contention four, the second affirmative has only grouped arguments number two and three, choosing to answer number one independently. Grouping arguments may be done at any time in debate by a speaker, but is only appropriate as a strategy when the arguments being grouped can truly be answered together.

Fourth, there are certain symbols which are used to chart arguments on the flow. These symbols are the choice of an individual, but the ones depicted here are fairly standard. When arguments are designed to answer other arguments, a line is drawn the column in which those arguments fall to the other arguments. When arguments are grouped, a line or a bracket is drawn to the right of those arguments which are being grouped prior to a horizontal line being drawn to the responsive arguments.

However, when an entire set of arguments are being grouped, you may not feel this to be necessary. For example, no vertical lines have been drawn next to the affirmative contentions when the first negative grouped them, and no Vertical lines were drawn next to the topicality argument or disadvantage even though the second affirmative grouped them. In this case, it is obvious that the arguments belong together, and one expects them to be grouped in most cases.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, a debater does not always have to proceed "down the flow." Instead, a debater may chose to answer the arguments in a different order than they were presented and written down. In this case, a debater may notify the judge and their opponents of their intent to do so. Most judges will not deduct this roadmapping from the speaker's time, but a few will, so a debater should always be on guard against this possibility. Roadmapping is merely announcing the order in which one will handle arguments one is covering. For instance, the second affirmative speaker in this debate may have announced: "I will first answer the negative topicality argument, then I will proceed through the case arguments, and I will conclude with some answers to the disadvantage." This order would probably be different from the one in which the first negative speaker had presented the arguments.

Sixth it is most important to remember that the second negative constructive and the frist negative rebuttalist is treated as one speech for the purpose of flowing. In other words, the next two speeches, which are negative, would be flowed in the column following the second affirmative constructive.

In many cases (and this book will advise you to follow this strategy as a general rule), the negative will begin all its major arguments in the first negative constructive. This would mean that the next two negative speeches would be choosing to extend on those arguments. While they may not chose to extend every single argument, the negative team would "divide up" the arguments to extend. For example, in this debate, the second negative constructive speaker might elect to extend the topicality argument and some of the case argument, and the first negative rebuttalist would spend her entire speech extending the disadvantage argument.

Seventh, this progression of argument tracking would continue throughout the rest of the debate, with each speaker in turn referencing the particular argument they wish to refute or extend based on its position on the flow sheet.

Good flowing takes lots of practice, and everyone will develop their own shorthand notation systems and abbreviations. Those who write larger will find that they need more room to keep their arguments from bleeding together. Some will write in script, while others find printing more legible and rapid. There are many other variations as well. Everyone's flow looks different, and everyone's experience with flowing is different. However, learning how to flow well is essential to learning to debate well, for one who cannot keep track of the logical progression of arguments in a debate is obviously at a strategic disadvantage to the opponent who can.