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The Epic Flow Post

I cannot overemphasize the importance of good flowing. Last year, there were over 50,000 flowing-related injuries worldwide, outstripping shark attacks, homicides, and teletubbies.

Okay, I'm kidding. But I'm entirely serious when I saw that good flowing is one of the most important keys to winning rounds. In this post, I'll be explaining how I flow. I don't expect everyone to like this system or adopt it completely; I'm just trying to give you a range of ideas and tips that you can adapt to your own styles. First, though, an overview.

There is no such thing as a "right" or "wrong" flowing style

The "right" way to flow is "whatever works best for you" - no more, no less. That said, some flowing styles work better than others. Any good flow system needs to include all of the following characteristics:

  1. Contain a complete, readable record of every major point raised in the round.
  2. Easily track the flow of arguments across speeches. You should be able to easily tell what every rebuttal is responding to, and how it was refuted.
  3. Allow you to easily construct the outline of your next speech.
  4. Be easy to set up, execute, and shut down (no super-complicated diagrams to draw, long phrases to write, or tons of pages to gather up at the end.)

My basic setup

(Note: If you ever have trouble visualizing what I'm talking about, scroll down to the bottom and take a look at the interactive flow scan - it'll make things clearer.)

I flow on a standard 8½-by-11 pad of paper, across two facing pages. I fold each page into quarters, so there are creases that demarcate four speeches on each page. (You can also draw lines, but I usually don't bother.) It looks like this:

Unlike many people, I don't usually put the speech names (1AC, 1NC, etc.) at the top of each column; you're not likely to forget which column is the 2AC halfway through the round.

If you find yourself needing more space, you can also use a legal-size pad (for wider columns) or flip up the page and write on the one underneath. The latter option messes up my argument tracking (coming later), and the former option wouldn't fit into my spiffy brown flowpad folder, so I usually just write smaller. About a minute into a speech, you can usually guesstimate about how much content is going to be in it, and use your space accordingly.

I flow in pencil so I can erase mistakes; others prefer pen. A single pad of paper is preferable to several loose sheets, since it's easier to keep track of it at the table.

Flowing arguments

I flow chronologically; i.e. I write down everything they say, in the order they say it. This contrasts to a number of other systems that flow responses side-by-side or on different sheets of paper. Both methods have their downsides; I've managed to solve most of the shortcomings of the chronological method with my argument-tracking system (below), but organizing your speeches can take a little practice. In my opinion, however, this is less of a problem than some of the downsides of argument-based systems.

I leave small gaps between each argument to distinguish them visually. This works better than lines, which would be confusing (since I use lines for other things.) Consistency is the key; you want arguments to have a unique visual style, so you can pick them out instantly without having to wade through lots of text.


I obsessively break things up into sections. If it feels like my opponents are moving on to a new topic (for example, a new stock issue), I make a new section heading for it. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. It increases the visual "texture" of the flow, so it's easier for your eyes to find things. Section headers give your eyes a sort of landmark to work off of, like grid lines on a map, or paragraph breaks in a newspaper.
  2. It improves your organization and refutation by helping you think of arguments as part of general topics. ("Solvency point three" as opposed to "argument number 14", for example.) This helps you make connections and recognize underlying themes, so you don't have to respond to every single point directly.

I differentiate sections, arguments, and subpoints of arguments by indentation level. For example:

Inherent barriers
a - corruption
b - national sovereignty
ev: Russia will refuse

For those of you wondering "don't you sometimes get squished up really close to the right side of the column?", the answer is yes. Fortunately, having more than two levels of indentation is rare, so it's not much of a problem.

Abbreviations and symbols

Having a good set of abbreviations and symbols is probably the biggest secret to flowing. Everyone will gradually evolve their own set, but here are some ones I use frequently, to give you some ideas:

Adv -  advantage
c/app -  cross-apply (as in, "c/app 1AC ev" - cross-apply the evidence from the 1AC)
crit -  criterion
DA -  disadvantage
dep -  dependent (as in, "rel dep on JV" - relations are dependent on Jackson-Vanik.)
ev: -  indicates that evidence was read for a point (for example, "ev: will improve relations with Russia".) I've seen a circled "e" used for this, but I try to avoid circles since it looks too much like my argument tracking system (see below.)
fx -  effects
inh -  inherency
sol -  solvency
n/spec (or n-spec)  -  indicates that evidence was not specific to the policy or country being discussed (for example, solvency evidence for the 123 agreement that says "nuclear cooperation improves relations with the recipient country" but doesn't specifically mention Russia.)
R -  Russia
ref -  refutation or reform ("no ref" could mean "they haven't refuted this" OR "this is not a reform", depending on the context)
rel -  relations
sig -  significance (the stock issue) or significant (the word).
src -  source (as of evidence)
T -  topicality
w/ -  with (for example, w/R would be "with Russia")
w/out -  without

I also invent a ton of abbreviations on the fly - usually for important issues in the round, like the name of the law they're passing. (For example, JV for Jackson-Vanik, EMD for European Missile Defense, NS for New START, etc.)

A super-useful symbol: The "splorple" (redirect symbol)

If you don't try anything else, try this - it's incredibly useful. Basically, the splorple (redirect symbol) tells you to insert something from somewhere else on the flow. You draw the splorple, and then draw a curvy line to the text you want to insert. When you're giving your speech, the symbol tells you to insert whatever it points to there. It's hard to miss. (Later, when you hit the text that you already inserted, the line coming out of it tells you not to say it.) Here's what it looks like:

This is immensely useful, because it allows you to quickly change the order of your speech. If you need to move an argument around after you've already written things down, you don't have to erase anything; just quickly draw the symbol. It saves a ton of time and helps make your speeches more organized.

Argument tracking/bubble flowing

One of the key problems with chronological flowing is that it's hard to track the flow of arguments throughout the round. To help solve this, I use a version of something called "bubble flowing." Here's how it works:

  1. When an argument is responded to, circle it,
  2. And draw a straight line from the circle to the response.

That's pretty much it. Now, you can easily trace an argument throughout the round, and tell what's been dropped just by look at what isn't circled. There are a couple of particulars worth mentioning:

  1. Use straight lines, not curvy lines. Your eyes can jump to the end of a straight line a lot faster than they can follow a curve. It doesn't matter if the line crosses text; you'll still be able to read it (unless you're flowing with a really thick pen, which you shouldn't be.)
  2. This isn't inflexible - if the argument was several speeches back, don't bother with the line; it's more trouble than it's worth. The most common instances of this are new 1AC responses in the 2NC. (They're basically new arguments anyway, so it's not really important to show what they're responding to.)
  3. Don't overdo it. You don't need to link every solvency argument back to the Solvency section in the 1AC - just direct responses.

For examples, see below.

Extend-o-tron 5000: An interactive flow

For your study, I've put together an interactive visual scan of one of my flows, from quarterfinals at the last tournament. (I picked this flow because it's very detailed and illustrates a lot of my techniques; in-round flows tend to be a lot messier.) Click on the image below and hover your mouse over any text to see what it says, and what I mean by it.

Click to go to the interactive flow

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  1. This article was quite useful. I always find it helpful to look at how other people flow and try to pick up their good habits. After reading this post, I might try rearranging my flowing system to see if it can be come more efficient.

    The splorple tip will be especially helpful. The only reservation I have is that it looks like it might take a few seconds to draw that symbol. Could it be draw with single lines instead of double lines to reduce draw time? Or would that compromise its clarity?

    • You can draw it with single lines, but it’s a little less clear. Actually, I’ve experimented with a couple of faster symbols, but I always came back to this one for one reason or another.

      I just timed it, and it takes me 2-3 seconds to draw it. That’s not as fast as I’d like, but it’s hardly a barrier. (It doesn’t have to look perfect.)

  2. Very Helpful! Found the abbreviations and symbols especially helpful.

  3. #2 under argument tracking/bubble flowing is a little confusing. Don’t you mean, “This is flexible?” And, why isn’t it important to show that points of the 1AC were responded to in the 2NC?

    • Flexible vs. not inflexible: That’s another way of putting it. I was specifically trying to refute the impression that this was a rigid, one-size-fits-all ruleset; “not inflexible” fits this context much better than “flexible”. In other words, I’m canceling out the attribute of “inflexible”, not adding in the attribute of “flexible”, so it gives a more accurate impression for most people.

      2NC points: The primary purpose of bubble flowing is to see drops. Since the 2NC point is a new line of argumentation, the most important issue is whether it gets dropped, not being able to tell which 1AC point it was tangentially responding to. Thus, a line is nonessential.

      In addition, most 1ACs are laid out loosely by stock issues. Following the section guidelines will make your flow of the 2NC easy to break down by stock issue, so it’s usually trivial to find the root argument in the 1AC.

      Obviously, it’s helpful to keep track of which 1AC points were responded to, but you don’t necessarily have to draw a line to do this – just circle it. Since full tracking is not absolutely necessary, the trouble of drawing a line across several speeches often outweighs the benefits. This is a personal decision, though.

      In some cases, it is important, however – for example, a source indictment of a specific 1AC card should probably be lined out.

  4. Flowing on a legal pad = automatic loss of credibility to talk about debate

    • Well, then, thank goodness I flow on an 8½-by-11 pad, not a legal pad. 😛

      Am I right in assuming that you’re coming from an NFL background? Flowing loose-leaf doesn’t make much sense in NCFCA/Stoa, as the argument density is a lot lighter. It just gives you more pages to lose track of, without really helping the organization. Learn the league before applying preconceived litmus tests.

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