Why Doc Formatting Matters by Lawrence Zhou

Lawrence Zhou is a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming, head coach of Team Wyoming, and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Victory Briefs.

In this unsolicited diatribe, Lawrence rants about the importance of formatting your documents in a professional and consistent manner, arguing that well formatted documents improve readability and increase credibility. 


Introduction

Every summer at debate camp, I am often asked to look over cases that students in my lab write. Most of the time, most of the comments are fairly generic: “Make sure you have complete citations” (the amount of debaters who do not properly cite their evidence and do not comply with the NSDA evidence rules is too high), “make sure your cards have warrants,” “shorten this card which you’ve painted,” etc. These are just the mistakes that you expect to see from budding debaters who attend camp and that’s the whole point of them sending cases to review. 

One comment I give to almost every case submitted to me is “Fix the formatting.” So many of the documents I receive have many of the same formatting errors: Inconsistent fonts and font sizes, different paragraph justifications, inconsistent spacing, etc. There are also some debate specific ones like not using Verbatim heading levels consistently, cutting cards using the F10 emphasis style instead of the F9 underline style, and so on. Of course, some of this is due to a lack of familiarity with how to use Verbatim, but some of it is simply because debaters don’t put in the effort to properly format their documents in Verbatim. 

I usually correct some of the formatting errors before I return the cases (usually consisting of applying consistent Verbatim formatting to the cards, e.g. making sure all taglines use the tag format, eliminating ghost tags, and changing all of the document to the same font and spacing), and each time I mention the importance of having consistently formatted documents, I typically get responses like “This is just you,” “Who cares?,” or “No one else is going to see it!” 

On the one hand, there is some truth to these responses. These mistakes shouldn’t really bother me. Most of the time, these documents are being submitted by relatively inexperienced debaters or debaters from programs without a lot of resources. I am also an anomaly. I am the primary editor for the Victory Briefs topic briefs and ever since Jake Nebel taught how to use pandoc and exposed me to LaTeX to format the briefs (which I think look quite professional), I have become obsessed with formatting. Now, I format many documents, including my syllabus, using https://www.overleaf.com/, a cloud-based LaTeX editor that makes documents look all scientific and professional. These are not the traits of a normal person who probably cares far less about the importance of well formatted documents than I (although many people who go into academia, particularly in the STEM fields, are likely more familiar and comfortable with LaTeX than I am). 

On the other hand, I do think that formatting matters, even if not to the extent that I care about it. Almost every successful debater or team that I can think of in recent years and in every event has beautiful, well formatted documents disclosed on the wiki. While certainly correlation and not causation, I think there is something to the idea that good debaters tend to have good documents, something I hope to explore a bit more in this essay. 

The rest of this diatribe is dedicated to forwarding three arguments for why debaters, including traditional debaters, should care about their document formatting and why coaches should spend a little extra effort in impressing on students the importance of clear and consistent formatting. I term these the readability, respect, and reward arguments. 

I suspect that there won’t be a strong argument in the negative. There probably aren’t people saying “Consistent formatting is bad!” Rather, I suspect that it’s mostly inertia and the fact that students, especially those in traditional circuits, are not motivated yet by the importance of formatting. I hope to make these concerns more salient and to provide reasons that motivate debaters to put in just a little extra effort to make their documents just a little better looking. 

But before I jump into reasons why I think it matters in debate, I’m going to take a brief detour talking about the class I teach and why I’ve started to feel so strongly about formatting. 

Teaching

Each semester that I teach my college course COJO 2095: Persuasive Argumentation, I have to grade final papers where my students get to pick basically any topic and write a paper defending some position on that topic. Some of these papers end up being very well-written polemics or argumentative essays; most of these papers end up being fairly strong illustrations of the problems in American education that produce students who cannot write

However, one of the things that stands out to me about essays is how they follow basic formatting guidelines or, more accurately, how poorly many of these papers follow basic formatting guidelines. Like most submissions in academia, the paper should be submitted in a 12-point font, Times New Roman, double-spaced Word document with 1-inch margins (I personally hate double-spaced but that’s a rant for a different time). 

Yet so many of the papers I receive have very obvious formatting errors. Here are just a few of the formatting mistakes I’ve seen in recent submissions: 

  • Wrong font
  • Wrong font size
  • Multiple fonts 
  • Multiple font sizes 
  • Multiple different types of paragraph spacing
  • Extra lines in between paragraphs
  • Weird paragraph justifications
  • Different paper margins

I’m sure there are other mistakes I’ve seen, but these tend to be the most common and I see most of these mistakes each semester. 

The thing that tends to bother me the most is that most of these mistakes can be corrected with just a few simple clicks. It takes no longer than 15 minutes to clean up a document before submitting it (although with the number of submissions that take place between 11:50 p.m. and 11:59 p.m., maybe 15 minutes is more than the average student can afford to spare). This is especially frustrating since they submit both a prospectus (their pitch for the subject area they would like to write about for the final paper) and an annotated bibliography (a list of sources, citations, and explanations of the sources that help the reader understand) earlier in the semester and I provide feedback on those papers especially regarding the formatting. Yes, I know that while important, feedback is often ignored by students, but still. 

Why did this bother me so much? At first, I actually didn’t have an easy answer. It just did. After all, I am one of those people who really appreciates things like aesthetically pleasing data, so maybe this is just an irrational aesthetic preference of mine.

But when I thought about it a bit more, I came up with two reasons why the lack of proper formatting bothers me so much. 

First, it just seemed to show utter disregard for the instructions. The assignment rubric clearly stated what the formatting guidelines were. The inability to follow even the most basic parts of the assignment guidelines just shows, at best, laziness, at worst, disrespect (though I suspect it was far more the former than the latter). 

Second, it showed me that students didn’t care about their work. And if they don’t care about their work, why should I? If my students couldn’t be bothered to spend those extra 15 minutes to make sure their final submission (mind you, it was the final in the class worth nearly 20% of their final grade) looked clean and professional, it signals to me that they don’t take pride in their work. It signals to me that they don’t care about their work being taken seriously by others because they don’t think it’s even worth taking seriously themselves. 

“…it showed me that students didn’t care about their work. And if they don’t care about their work, why should I?”

Of course, these are likely overreactions on my part. I am almost certainly attributing some degree of malice or negligence where none exists. I am certain most of these students do work very hard on their final submissions (even if mostly just during the week before its due, a poor practice I might add even if it’s one I’m also habitually guilty of myself). And, as I noted above, I am definitely an anomaly when it comes to these concerns. 

Yet I do not think I am alone in at least thinking that formatting matters. There are reasons why academics follow standardized citation and formatting styles like MLA, APA, and Chicago. Imagine a professor submitting a journal article with 3 different citation styles, 11 different fonts, and inconsistent paragraph spacing. I doubt many people in academia would take it very seriously. And, despite criticisms, I think there are good reasons for that. Here are a few that I’ve seen:

First, consistency matters. Having a consistent set of formatting guidelines avoids confusion between articles. Instead of having multiple different styles in the same paper, the paper follows its own rules which makes it easier to read. This is especially important when instructors are grading dozens of papers a semester. 

Second, visuals matter. I think it’s often the case that people try to deny this fact, but visuals clearly matter when it comes to how the reader perceives information. If the document does not look professional, it should not be a surprise when the reader does not take the information seriously. Sloppy or inconsistent formatting reflects poorly on your ability to get the details right which clouds a reader’s judgment of the content of the paper. 

Third, content matters. This may seem counterintuitive, but I actually think that following basic formatting guidelines actually allows you to focus more on the content. Once you understand the academic standards required, it allows you to focus more on the content because you are not as distracted with questions about how to organize and format your paper. 

Of course, debate is not academia. For one, you don’t submit debate cases for a grade like you might a school essay. For another, it’s not like these debate cases are getting published in a journal. However, I still believe that formatting matters when constructing debate cases even if not as much as in school. 

Here, I forward three arguments—readability, respect, and reward—in favor of having well formatted debate cases. 

Readability

The first argument is about why formatting should matter directly to debaters. Several studies have shown that numerous aspects of formatting including font type, font size, paragraph style, and leading, all affect readability on a computer screen. Inconsistent formatting tends to trip up debaters who might stumble or pause when switching between differently formatted parts of the case. 

This is important. Clear communication is one of the skills this activity seeks to impart on its participants and it’s also important to winning debate rounds. All else equal, judges are likely to vote for a debater that sounds more polished and practiced than a debater who is prone to verbal stumbles in their speech. Having more consistently formatted documents helps the formatting blend into the background, allowing you to focus on the message you’re trying to communicate. 

That being said, there is an inherent weakness to these types of altruistic arguments which is that a skeptical reader simply might not be motivated by them. “I can read it well enough” or “You just get used to it” are both common responses to this view. 

Yet the evidence that readability matters is difficult to deny. Inconsistent formatting empirically does decrease readability. Your brain has to spend precious and limited cognitive energy deciphering new text. Imagine if the New York Times or the book you were reading had different fonts and font sizes—it would be distracting! It is important to keep things professionally and consistently formatted as it decreases those reading distractions and makes it easier to focus on the words themselves and not what the words look like. 

There is a reason why website designers fret obsessively over details like the font, white space, color, and navigation—it all affects readability. There’s even evidence that different fonts affect the rate of information retention. Similarly, debaters should be sensitive to the way they design their cases. Are you using the right font, using a paragraph spacing that you can read, and using a font size that you can read? All of these affect readability and thus your ability to clearly communicate to judges. It becomes especially pronounced when it comes to organization. I often see debaters who lose their place when reading through a document with poor consistency in their document outlines. Proper and consistent formatting can solve this. 

Respect

The second is about why formatting should matter indirectly to debaters. This is probably what I take to be the most important argument in favor of formatting cases. Consistent and professional formatting lends credibility and legitimacy to your work and shows that you speak the language of debate. It shows that you respect the activity of debate and take pride in the research and preparation you’ve done. These documents garner respect from both judges and opponents. 

“I believe that the perception of evidence quality based on formatting matters greatly”

I believe that the perception of evidence quality based on formatting matters greatly. The impression you leave on a judge starts from when the email chain is first started. Every circuit judge has experienced the pain of someone forgetting to “Reply All” on an email chain or a debater messing up the email chain by typing the wrong email address (something that Joanne Park and I discussed at length this year during an elective at VBI). Even if they do not admit it aloud, judges know that when a debate round starts with technical difficulties concerning the email chain, the round is likely going to be a round between inexperienced debaters. They expect that the round will be worse than it actually is. That’s why it’s so important to start off the debate by getting the basics right, such as setting up the email chain properly. You want to make a good first impression on the judge because of the power of the first impression bias

The “first impression bias” is a limitation in human information processing which causes us to make quick and incomplete observations about others based on the first information they are exposed to and that biases their ability to evaluate subsequent information. This bias is well-documented and has implications for a wide number of fields. As Nobel Laureate and personal hero of mine Daniel Kahnemen describes it, “Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs.” 

The first impression bias is really two biases at play here. First is the halo effect, where “an initial positive judgment about a person unconsciously colors the perception of the individual as a whole.” Second is confirmation bias, where we seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to our existing beliefs. You might have heard of these terms before, but I do want to emphasize just how important it is to help understand why I take the perception argument so seriously. 

If the judge thinks you’re a novice, inexperienced, or just bad at debate from the start, that will cloud their judgment of the entire round. While I am unaware of any studies specifically in the context of debate that substantiates it, I would not be at all surprised if it turned out that things like email chain mistakes correlated with lower speaker points and maybe even win rates (although I’m more doubtful about the latter). Regardless, I feel fairly confident in saying that such impressions do matter. 

Document formatting is often the second thing that makes an impression on the judge. Before you give your first affirmative speech, the judge will often have opened the document to follow along. If the judge sees a poorly formatted Verbatim document with inconsistent heading styles or poorly formatted cards (or worse, a non-Verbatim document, Google Doc link, or PDF), that also immediately signals to the judge, “Hey, I am not an experienced debater.” That could easily start you off with lower credibility with your opponent and could leave a poor first impression. The judge might subsequently interpret arguments you make in a less favorable light and be less sympathetic to arguments you make in a round. 

“If the judge sees a poorly formatted Verbatim document… That could easily start you off with lower credibility…”

From my own perspective, I know this to be true, even when I do my best to actively suppress these biases. Whenever I’m judging a debate, whether it’s a local LD debate, a college policy debate, or a PF debate in China, I am consciously and subconsciously making judgments about the quality of the debaters. I’m already asking myself questions like, “Is this going to be a good round” or “Which debater is likely to win.” The answers to these questions are influenced by a myriad of variables, but one of the variables with the most weight to me is document formatting. I feel like I can reasonably predict the quality of a round based simply on the formatting of the 1AC document. 

Whenever I open up an email chain and I see a document with inconsistent or sloppy formatting, I immediately associate that with a novice or JV debater because almost all novice and JV debaters have messy documents. But that association isn’t the one that you want to give to the judge, especially not at first. That association caps the level of skill the judge thinks you’re capable of and it also makes them less likely to take your arguments seriously (or at least less likely to extend charity to your arguments). 

“…effort put into making a document well formatted concretely expresses that you care and put in just a little extra work to make your work more presentable.”

Why is this the case? Most obviously, it’s because most of the best debaters have well formatted cases and many novice or JV debaters have poorly formatted cases, so the relationship is easy to draw. Perhaps less obviously is because that effort put into making a document well formatted concretely expresses that you care and put in just a little extra work to make your work more presentable. 

When I see a document with poor formatting, it signals to me that the debater isn’t detail-oriented and that spills over into how I perceive the quality of the evidence itself. If the evidence isn’t properly formatted, what other details are being overlooked?

In short, the quality of the document is often taken as a proxy for the quality of a debater. While false (as many good debaters have bad documents and many bad debaters have good documents), it is nonetheless how us biased and flawed humans make decisions. Poorly formatted documents convey inexperience; well formatted documents convey experience. 

“…the quality of the document is often taken as a proxy for the quality of a debater.”

I admit this will not be the most persuasive to many local/traditional debaters who do not regularly use email chains (basically just a fancy way of having debaters, and sometimes judges, exchange evidence/cases being read in the debate through email, typically by attaching Word documents to the emails) while debating. 

However, I do believe this still applies because email exchanges or other sharing of evidence is required by the NSDA and still often occurs. For example, the first line of the “NSDA LD, PF, and Policy Debate Evidence Rules – Guide for Judges” document says, “Scenario: A debater or judge asks to see something read and/or the original source of something read. Expectation: The opposing debater should provide this information promptly.” Notice this is applicable for LD, not just policy as some may assume, and it is pretty clear in the requirements to share evidence. This is reaffirmed in the NSDA’s “High School Unified Manual” on page 30 when it states, “Availability of evidence. 1. In all debate events, for reference, any material (evidence, cases, written citations, etc.) that is presented during the round must be made available to the opponent and/or judge if requested. When requested, the original source or copy of the relevant (as outlined in 7.1.F.2.) pages of evidence read in the round must be available to the opponent in a timely fashion during the round and/or judge at the conclusion of the round.” 

So even if the judge never sees any evidence requested, your opponent might, which leads me to the second component of the perception argument: Well formatted evidence matters in making opponent’s treat you as a threat. When opponents see well formatted documents or evidence, that affects how they will debate. 

I recently had a coaches meeting with some of the other coaches at Apple Valley High School about the importance of formatting. As Nick Smith, Jacob Nails, and I were deciding on what the new standards would be for the formatting of Apple Valley LD cases (we previously lacked any real standardization), Nails and I were commenting on some of the bad cards we’ve cut in the past. As we were trading war stories about some of the worst cards that we’ve ever cut, we both remarked that many of our bad cards managed to carry the day because their formatting lent our cards (unjustified) credibility. 

But that credibility doesn’t just matter to the judge, it matters to your opponent. Opponents are more likely to give your arguments and evidence more credence than they deserve if those arguments are presented in a well formatted document. People give well formatted documents that credence because it is associated with other high-quality materials like journal articles. Proper formatting lends you credibility in the eyes of both your opponent and your judge. And when your opponent treats you like a threat, they tend to perform worse. Studies have shown that in domains like tennis or chess, treating your opponents as better than you makes you perform worse. If your documents look professional and serious, your opponents might actually debate worse than usual, a competitive advantage that’s hard to turn down. 

“Well formatted and well organized documents told me that my opponents… had clearly spent a lot of time preparing their arguments which meant they had probably thought through more aspects of the debate, cut more cards on the issue, and found better evidence than I had.”

Anecdotally, I felt this a lot when I was a relatively inexperienced debater starting off in college policy. Whenever we faced a team with documents as poorly formatted as mine were (my college policy docs from my first year of competition were horrendous to look at), I knew it was going to be an evenly matched round. However, whenever we faced a team with well formatted documents, I immediately became nervous. Well formatted and well organized documents told me that my opponents were serious threats. It signaled that they had clearly spent a lot of time preparing their arguments which meant they had probably thought through more aspects of the debate, cut more cards on the issue, and found better evidence than I had. Maybe none of that is true, but I can say that I lost much more frequently to teams with well formatted docs than to teams without them. It’s hard to say which way, if any, the causation runs—does good formatting make good debaters or do good debaters use good formatting (or is all merely correlation), but the connection exists and it is something you should try to exploit for your own benefit. 

In other words, well formatted documents give you a (slight) competitive edge. It probably won’t be directly responsible for winning a lot of rounds, but it almost certainly matters at the margins and when debate is a game of inches not miles, those margins might matter more than you think. 

Reward

Finally, and this is likely the most contentious and least generalizable argument, I think that there is something rewarding about producing a well formatted file. I think debaters should take more pride in their work, even if the quality of said work isn’t objectively great. 

Debate is hard. The task of cutting cards itself is already impressive. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are being asked to process information at the level of college students. As I ranted about for a while in my Current Affairs article on the importance of debate, information processing and research is hard, even for college kids. Taking a journal article and distilling down the central idea (something that the average American adult has difficulty doing given low literacy rates in the U.S.) into something readable in a competitive debate round is actually no small feat. 

You should take pride in this! You should feel proud to cut a card! For me, I feel rewarded when I cut a good file. (Of course, I feel even more rewarded when those files can help debaters win rounds.) There’s something just so satisfying about producing a well formatted file. I think you should feel good about yourself when you produce a good life. I think you should feel proud of the work you’ve done, and formatting both signals that pride as well as induces it. Similar to how artists feel good about producing something aesthetically pleasing, I think you should feel good about producing a quality file. 

Conclusion

I think that formatting reflects effort and pride. It shows that you care about the work you’ve done. It shows that you pay attention to the details. It shows that you are willing to go the extra two steps and make your documents look professional. It shows you respect the discipline, can speak the language of debate, and care about the quality of your work. It signals to both yourself and others that the work you’ve done is quality work. 

I do not think there is a lot of value in making documents follow a particular formatting style. Just like I think it’s silly that publishers waste a million hours on arbitrary style guides, I think it’s silly to make everyone use a particular font or citation style. Just like I don’t have a strong preference as to whether we drive on the right or left side of the road, I don’t have a strong preference for any particular style. But I do have a preference that we agree to drive on the same side of the road just like I have a preference that your documents follow its own internal rules. Citation styles should be mostly consistent, you should have consistent heading and organization, and your document should have consistent fonts, font sizes, and spacing. 

Of course, I doubt most people care about this as much as I do. I do admit this preference is somewhat irrational. Even people who produce more aesthetically pleasing debate files than I probably find this diatribe a bit silly. 

Despite the importance of producing organized and formatted files to long-term debate success, I feel like this is one of those subjects that is an unspoken rule of debate. Just like there aren’t great, centralized resources for teaching debaters about email chains, ever-changing disclosure norms, or how to construct a politics file, I don’t think there are enough resources dedicated to teaching some of the basics of debate that more experienced coaches are prone to forget, thanks in part to the curse of knowledge

Is doc formatting as important as other things when it comes to improving debate? Definitely not. And usually, debaters do get naturally better at formatting docs as they become more experienced regardless. 

But is this something that matters at least a little that is often not directly discussed? I think so. I think that formatting matters and the fact that other judges and debaters think it matters means it should probably matter to you too. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.