Some Honest Principles for AFF-Writing
By Anthony Trufanov
In every aspect of being a 2A, there are two structuring levels: the tactical level (what cards to read in what order, whether or not to make a theory argument, what advantage to extend in the 2AR – what you do with the tools you have brought to the debate) and the strategic level (which tools you choose to bring to the debate in the first place). Today I’ll talk about the first strategic question any 2A has to answer – which AFF to bring to a debate or tournament, and how to decide. This will be the first of several resources in the pipeline that will blend general advice with a practical illustration by offering a glimpse into the black box of AFF-writing, unpacking the process I will use to produce my GDDI starter pack AFF for the criminal justice topic in written and video form.
Part 1 – Being a 2A: A Theorization
Throughout your debate career you have probably heard many different “rules” and “principles” for what a good AFF should do. You may have been told that it is “better” to write an AFF that is “true.” You may have heard that your 1AC should place more emphasis on robust internal links than on well-developed, plausible terminal impacts. You might believe that only “high quality” evidence belongs in the 2AC. You may write off “squirrely” AFFs because you believe that it is better to leverage evidence from the core of the topic against negative positions. You might assume that solvency cards from books are inherently better than those from random articles on the internet. You might hold as axiomatic that your AFF needs to have an “angle” in a clash of civilizations debate.
There is a time and a place for all of these principles and pieces of advice, but none of it amounts to an overarching philosophy that you should carry into your AFF-writing if you are trying to maximize your AFF win-rate.
Instead, you should follow a much simpler principle: To maximize your win-rate, every decision you make must improve your odds of winning by more than the alternatives.
You probably think this statement is self-evident while simultaneously not realizing or adhering to its fullest implications. Keeping this statement in the back of your mind will help you remember that any other “rule,” “best practice,” or otherwise that you may have been taught to follow is not an end in itself – instead, it is an approximation for the pattern of behavior that is likely to produce the most wins the majority of the time.
This principle should not be treated as a blank check to substitute your judgement for the judgement of those more experienced than you. Brutal, honest self-reflexiveness is a vital element of implementing this advice. Part of that means acknowledging if, all else being equal, a decision recommended by your coach is going to be better than a decision you make yourself 95% of the time. Part of that means recognizing what you don’t know. Part of that means reckoning honestly with your limitations as a debater and preparing in ways that help you overcome those limitations in the long-run while minimizing their effect in the short-run. Part of that means that when your first draft of a 1AC serves up a pile of slop and a mentor or judge tells you to burn it down and start over, you have the courage and humility to shed your pride, look at your work through their eyes, and make improvements.
But this idea should also be used to remind yourself not to die on ideological hills when doing so requires a trade-off with winning debates. No belief should be above scrutiny. If you have over-highlighted a 2AC card to the point of regularly undercovering vital offensive arguments because you are proud of how good it is, change the highlighting. If you have under-highlighted all of your cards so you can make 30 answers to a DA and keep losing because your cards don’t say anything, you should highlight them more.
It should also be used to remind you that few principles will apply to an equal extent in every round. If we assumed away limits to debate preparation and fact retention, the ideal 2A would never read the same 1AC twice – not simply because novelty is inherently good (it isn’t – like everything else, novelty has a time and a place), but because the best version of every 1AC is the one that takes advantage of a NEG team’s argumentative proclivities.
In short, never do something uncritically. Always ask: why am I doing this, and how does it help me win?
With that in mind, let’s get into the concrete aspects. I will not spell out the effects of every possible contingency because there are too many and doing so could fill a book. Instead, these examples should serve to illustrate the sort of questions you need to ask yourself, and how those questions might inform your AFF strategy.
Know Your Goals
One question that’s important to ask yourself explicitly concerns your goals for debate, and what you want to get out of it. Not everyone approaches debate from a win-maximizing perspective. If you are doing debate for friends or clout, that is perfectly fine. But if that is the case, pretending to yourself and others that you are primarily in it to win it can only hurt you by siphoning finite energy from the outcomes you care about into those that you don’t.
People who claim to literally ONLY care about maximizing wins are deceiving themselves – wins alone do not produce fulfillment and they do not justify the inordinate amount of time investment it takes to get them. Everyone has competing priorities and obligations – that is good and healthy.
What we are talking about is how to extract the best competitive outcomes from whatever intellectual and emotional bandwidth you are willing and able to invest, given the constraints you choose to set for yourself. Your precise preferred balance of debate work and other parts of your life can have a big effect on what advice you can implement and what advice you cannot.
This requires being realistic. If you are prepping to win the TOC, realistically you should show up to the tournament with 3-4 completed new AFFs tailored against specific opponents or categories of opponents. If you are prepping to clear, you need 1-2. Writing three or four AFFs will reduce your odds of clearing relative to writing one or two, because writing the third and fourth trades off with polishing the first and second. If your goals are in the 1-2 range, you will probably do worse if you lie to yourself and overshoot.
Obviously, people can over or underperform their goals no matter how self-aware they are. Tournaments are unpredictable; that’s part of what makes them fun. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t gains to be had from prepping in a way that takes advantage of the most likely outcomes.
Know Your Limits
Who you are as a debater, student, and young adult should shape your choice of AFF.
How much time are you willing to put in over the course of the season? Enough to have a new AFF for your prospective season-long nemesis every time you debate? A new advantage? Just enough to write a single 1AC that you will never update again? The responses your AFF will draw the first time your opponent sees it will likely differ radically from the responses it draws the second or third time. The first time it is read, an AFF written for the long-haul might be less likely to win than a “worse” AFF designed to take maximum advantage of surprise. An AFF written to win one debate that ends up lasting for four tournaments because you got lazy is likely to produce worse results than if you had been honest with yourself and written something with endurance.
Are you the kind of debater who is good at picking up a file for the first time and giving a great speech about it five minutes later, or are you the kind of debater who achieves greatness through dozens of rounds of practice? The first kind of debater will be able to take greater advantage of rotating through new arguments. The second kind of debater will be able to take greater advantage of commanding the details of an idea they explore over the course of the season.
Is a team that is way better than you reading the same AFF as you, and consistently choosing an impact that you aren’t? It could be that they are getting lucky or winning despite their choices. It could be that they know something you don’t.
Are you a sophomore who can’t research but wants to learn? Read an AFF that requires you to research.
Is early March before the TOC the first time you are writing a file by yourself? You should not expect to win TOC elims on the first argument you produce. Your time is better spent polishing what you know, scouting, pillaging the wiki, and highlighting.
Are you a slower or faster spreader than your competition? If you are slower, do speaking drills, and in the meantime, choose an AFF that forces your opponents into arguments that limit their ability to abuse their speed advantage, like topicality or theory-intensive counterplans. If you are faster, still do speaking drills, and choose an AFF that puts a sea of cards at your disposal.
What parts of the topic interest you? If you’re personally interested in something, you will be more invested in researching it and more passionate in talking about it, as well as generally knowing more about it than your opponents. If feeling engaged by your work has a big effect on your productivity, choose an AFF that gives you VTL when you read about it.
Know Your Opponents
If you have decided that you are willing and able to do AFF prep in a way that targets specific opponents, you have your work cut out for you. The same questions that you would use to diagnose and preempt your weaknesses can help you discover and exploit your opponents’.
The most common genre of weakness is argumentative dependence or predictability. Does your opponent always read a politics DA and not extend it? Choose an AFF that gives you the option to straight turn it.
Does your opponent always throw out similar analytical advantage CPs (throw money at x, ban y, nuke z)? Think of the most likely ones about your AFF and preempt them through highlighting, evidence selection, and block-writing.
Do your opponent’s 1NC vs new AFFs always include three process CPs that compete off of a similar premise? Script out a response and save yourself some 2AC time.
Are you favored to win against your opponent, and by how much? If you have a 5-0 season head-to-head record, reading an AFF that improves your chances only if the 1NC presents a very specific argument that the NEG has only said 70% of the time would be unwise. Choose a less risky strategy. If you have an 0-5 record, roll the dice.
Putting this idea into practice doesn’t require writing a different AFF for every team – for any reasonable pool, that is an unreasonable expectation. Instead, it requires targeting categories of teams – slow teams, T-dependent teams, politics-reliant teams, etc.
You can even do this if you read one AFF all season. Modularizing your 2AC and 1AR blocks allows you to tailor argument length and selection in a way that responds to the NEG’s preferences.
Know Your Prefs and Your Judges
A lot of ink has been spilled on judge adaptation in the context of individual debates. What is less discussed is judge adaptation that occurs before you see a pairing and go to a tournament.
In the same way that you can categorize opponents by their attributes, you can categorize judges. Suppose you are targeting a team. You can look at who has judged your debates against them, and their debates against teams like you. If you both travel to roughly the same national circuit tournaments it is likely to be a recurring cast of characters.
Suppose 40% of this group taught at the UM camp and the UM groupthink du jour says that the states CP is illegitimate. It may be worth prepping an AFF with a worse response to the States CP, or a version of your States CP 2AC with a heavier emphasis on theory, so that you can take advantage of the opportunity if it arises.
Suppose 60% are college judges who have no idea what the topic is. Avoid super technical AFFs. Also think about avoiding the core of the topic in general, since getting people who know nothing about a topic to vote on T is harder when they are not programmed by community norms.
These are just some examples. Your answers to different questions about yourself, your opponents, and your judges may lead you in contradictory directions. The point is that there is no ONE answer to these questions that applies to everyone, or even to every debate.
Know Your Argument
In every second of speech time, you have one mission: choosing words that maximize the positive impact on the judge’s decision-making. This begins in the 1AC.
One question to ask is about 1AC structure. Is there a greater premium on selling the narrative of your ADVs, or on maximizing card-reading time? Either way, there is no single best tag for a card – each tag is additive, building on those that came before, and laying groundwork for those that come after. In a narratively driven 1AC, your tags have to tell a story that evolves as the 1AC progresses. In a card-text-maximizing 1AC, you may wish to minimize repetition through devices such as lists or omission of warrants.
Your card selection should also be contextual. Too often, debaters lean heavily on a generic set of impact evidence. But – for example – there is no single best impact card to proliferation. There might be a card that is the best at explaining why nuclear proliferation would be very bad. But if your internal link to stopping prolif is sanctions, your bigger issue is the intuitive judge reaction that sanctions have a poor track record at preventing nuclearization. You would be better served by a prolif card that describes a harm proportional to your sanctions internal link, and explains why specific types or examples of prolif are suited to resolution by sanctions in a way that recent examples like North Korea are not.
If you are reading a pre-2020 impact to economic decline in your 1AC, you are doing it wrong. You need a piece of evidence that anticipates and preempts the coronavirus objection by saying a further decline would be worse. If you do not have that you are wasting your and everyone else’s time.
Are you planning to rely on the robustness of your impact evidence in a 2AR against a K? Highlight the parts of the evidence that speak to the methodology behind your impact card.
Part 2 – Choosing My GDDI Starter Pack AFF
At this point, I am going to get specific, and talk about how I went about choosing my starter pack AFF for the GDDI.
Obviously, a lot of the above does not play a role. I am not writing this AFF for myself, for a specific opponent, or for a specific judge. There are pedagogical imperatives at play. However, it is still worth talking through some of the relevant strategic decisions to be made.
The first step is to know something about the topic. Do some background reading. Do some broad searches. Refer to camp topic lectures, camp files, and camp T files, but don’t defer to them.
Generate a mental map of NEG responses to the topic. What do they have in common? What are the best arguments? The worst?
Write down your thinking at each stage. Track what you learn and what ideas occur to you. Your memory is not as good as you think it is.
From like two hours of googling the topic as well as general debate intuition, I have a rough idea about some T arguments that might be a thing:
- T “Enact” = Congress
- T Criminal Justice = Criminal Justice System
- T Criminal Justice Reform = Softening
- T Policing = Local
- T Policing = Cops Not Other Regs
- T Sentencing = Systematic
- Did not care enough about forensic science to google it in the first two hours
Some primary flavors of generics seem to have emerged as well:
- Flavors of States CP (don’t really know what these are yet other than just states do the AFF vs federal mandate AFFs) + Federalism DA
- Process CPs that compete off of “enact” – definitely agent CPs, I have a vague notion that this word will be a really good process word for the NEG generally so having a strong process defense will be important
- 2020 DA
- Abolition K / Movements DA
- Legalism K
- Something about agency overstretch… idk what but NEGs will find a way
- The classic NEG vs courts swamp but maybe better cause courts AFFs will be about rights
Assess the relative quality of these positions and how it will shape your preparation. This requires some research. Once the regular season starts you can get some idea of the answer based on what went down at camps. I am relying a lot on my knowledge about the world/experience in debate.
I am worried about kritiks of reformism and incrementalism. This slate of policy NEG options sucks – some creativity and actual NEGs will be necessary, and I am not optimistic that most people can/will make that happen. I think it might be bad enough that even teams that would never typically go the K route will be forced to do so by the nature of the topic. I want some ability to throw a wrinkle into the general reformism formula.
I am also worried about states and federalism. I remember learning on the surveillance topic that the vast majority of policing and sentencing occurs at the state level, so solving stuff comprehensively/at scale will require a lot of preemption. Seems to hard counter any AFF that preempts the states in order to make them do something. I know from AP gov that state police powers is a phrase that describes a lot of state powers and has spillovers to some important areas like public health, which is a big deal right now. An actual doctrinal spillover argument is always a recipe for great federalism impacts.
T “enact” seems good. That word has historically been used successfully to exclude non-Congress AFFs. Some Congress key arguments will be important.
T “sentencing” = systematic seems okay. One of my first thoughts when reading the resolution had been that decriminalizing anything would be T. I still kind of think the groupthink will arrive there, but I’m gonna table that idea pending a better reading of community norms.
T “policing” seems terrible. The T cards I have read make me think that limiting the scope of that will be difficult. There are very broad, strongly worded interpretation cards. The community might settle on wanting badly to find a limit, but this seems like the kind of thing where the AFF will be allowed to get away with a lot in practice.
A few others of these positions are not scary, but I can reliably anticipate them being in a lot of 1NCs. There will be a premium on writing an AFF that can exploit this, whether through a quick dismissal that generates a time asymmetry, or that can generate a unique genre of offense. Not really possible to operationalize at this preliminary stage but a thing to stay on the lookout for. I am primarily looking to do this to the politics DA and the 2020 DA.
Well, at least there’s an easy way to circumvent the states swamp: just write an AFF about federal agency criminal justice. I do some further googling and it quickly becomes obvious that saying policing is only local is totally untenable.
Also, there are a lot of super aggro cards saying policing and police are different? About how private police do policing? How policing includes just like caring about the general well-being of the public? This seems like it would require a pretty broad T interp… but also it is too galaxy brain for a starter pack. Putting a pin in this.
As a side-note, I’m about six hours of searches in at this point. Settling on an AFF idea typically takes me about half of the time that it takes to write the actual AFF, unless the AFF just falls in my lap.
In this case I get lucky, and the AFF kind of does fall in my lap. I’m an avid listener of the National Security Law Podcast, and a recent episode discussed what Trump has recently described as “Obamagate” – FBI surveillance of a Trump campaign worker, Carter Page, under the purview of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. One of the podcast’s hosts, Steve Vladeck, mentioned an ACLU proposal to reform criminal prosecutions reliant on FISA-derived evidence as a means of exerting what he called “hydraulic pressure” on the intelligence-gathering process to be more diligent about record-keeping. I read an AFF about intelligence politicization at my last NDT and know that there are strong Congress key arguments for resolving intelligence politicization, and that such AFFs are great at generating link offense against politics. Because this is a federal process AFF, there are good, built-in states CP answers. As for the K, there are tons of arguments for why surveillance reform is necessary to open space for critical alternatives, which can be offense when coupled with defenses of engaging the legal system.
I say that I got lucky that an AFF fell in my lap, but I get lucky pretty often. I read a lot. I have seen many AFFs deployed and thought about their strengths and weaknesses. Since 2014, I have written 47 AFFs encompassing 10 topics. Commonalities and lessons frequently inform my more recent work. My intuitive read on whether something “is a thing” has gotten reasonably good.
However, a few things worry me based on my experience with AFFs in this genre. First, while intelligence politicization is a great impact, credibly solving it is very difficult. You have to affect Trump’s behavior in a predictable way – a baseline improbable proposition considering he is a total freak. Second, this AFF is mostly not about criminal justice – it is about using criminal justice to affect the FBI. There had better be a beefy set of reasons not to just alter FBI process directly. Third is T. We are talking about prosecutors – is that policing? My hunch is yes because I don’t think policing means anything, but answering this question will be among the first things on my plate. With any luck I’ll be able to say it is sentencing too.
Tune in next time to see how I begin to address these problems.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.