10 Research Tips for Debaters

Researching can be the hardest, most tedious part of debate but it is instrumental to success. It is a skill I developed close to perfection towards the latter end of my debate career, which enabled me to always be better prepared than my opponents. Now, research is something I find amusing and deal with it on a day-to-day basis in college and for my job. These tips that I outline below apply both to the debate space but also to school so keep that in mind as you read further. 

1—Start with general search terms. Gradually get more narrow as your peruse the literature and find out the common language across articles. This is an important tool for navigating databases or Google Scholar most effectively and efficiently. 

2—Compile articles first, then read them. Organize them in a folder and make sure to include in your document titles the reason why you wanted to take a look at that article. 

3—Don’t go into research with a position in mind, at least in the preliminary stages. This builds off Tip #1 but the more undefined your search is at the beginning, the more likely it is it be fruitful. The evidence for this tip is simple. Think about how you cut cards. Rarely do debaters take two-three sentences as a whole to make their argument. Instead they jump around agilely highlighting the words in a big paragraph that, when taken together, prove their intended point. So, you aren’t going to find an author that says something hyper specific to block out a position. Rather, what you will find is repeating key words and ideas that when cut down can help you block out a position. Also, with this method you are more likely to find general articles that can help you block out multiple positions on a given topic. Perhaps, you can find evidence that applies to all parts of the topic. Yet this type of silver bullet will only be found with general research terms and without a position in mind. 

4—Even when you are looking for specific links, turns, answers etc. use as general search terms. I’m not going to say too much more about this because it builds off everything I said in Tip #3. 

5—Keep a running list of positions you don’t have answers to during tournaments and make sure to update them as the debate season progresses. Updating your research will make or break important rounds even if you don’t end up always using the evidence you find. Increasing your knowledge about a given topic as the season progresses will always advantage you against your opponents. Why? You just simply have more to draw from when generating arguments off the cuff. 

6—Research in small stints. Don’t do more than an hour of research at once. You’ll get tunnel vision or frustrated and that hurts your efficiency and overall mental attitude. Staying positive is the key to success because it keeps your mind clear. Anger clouds your decision-making skills. So with research, if you end up being frustrated then you might ignore an article that is a gold mine or you might overstate the quality of your evidence just because you want to be finished. These are obviously bad habits so it is important to stay focused and positive!  

7—Read the abstract first. Then if that seems relevant move onto the intro. If that’s relevant go to the conclusion and then at point you can finally proceed to the rest of the article. But even then, I recommend reading the first one-three sentences of a paragraph and the last to see if what lies between is actually relevant to what you are researching. This is an efficient way to get through lots of acquired articles during your preliminary research. This is definitely a tip that I flexibly adhered too, but more often than not it was helpful. 

8—Don’t shy away from graphs/tables/data. While it is sometimes hard to integrate this type of analysis into a debate case or brief, the explanation for what the data means in regards to the article’s conclusion can be great for debate evidence. Definitely scan the paragraph before and the paragraph after any graphs/tables or data when doing your research. 

9—Make a template. A template makes formatting all the evidence you find much easier. It also tends to be more aesthetically pleasing for yourself and for your judge. If you don’t have a template, there are plenty online but they are also easy enough to make in Microsoft Word. This is something that is worth doing during the offseason. It doesn’t take too much time but will pay big dividends come the next season. 
10—Have a good research playlist. Keeps you focused. Keeps you happy. Enough said.

Noah is a sophomore studying political science at Northwestern University. He graduated from Lexington High School in 2012, where he debated for three years. He attended the Victory Briefs Institute the summer before his senior year, during which he won, among other tournaments, the Greenhill Fall Classic, the New York City Invitational, the Dukes and Bailey Award, and the 2012 Tournament of Champions. He coached the TOC Champion in 2013 and now works with his alma mater. 

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