Flowing is one of those aspects of debate that few people give much thought to. Most likely, you were a novice who learned how to flow in your first few weeks of debate and then proceeded to never think about it again: it became an automatic, subconscious thing, while your attention was focused more on improving in other facets of debate.
However, that’s a mistake. Being a good flow—and developing a style that works for you—can mean the difference between dropping versus answering arguments, whether you have detailed notes for a rebuttal versus going in with nothing, and more. This article is the first in a multi-part series that will walk through some tips and tricks for effective flowing.
One question that many debaters initially have is whether to flow on paper or on a computer. “Back in my day,” everybody flowed on paper when they were debating. Around half of all judges flowed on computers but flowing on paper was universal for debaters. However, this has somewhat changed – some debaters began flowing on computers and other debaters, seeing this, decided to emulate it. What are the pros and cons to each approach?
Flowing on a computer has some obvious benefits. Many people can type much faster than they can write, which increases the odds of someone being able to write down net more words. This makes it less likely that an argument just gets “missed” by nature of more being on the page. Flowing on a computer using a template on Excel also has a spacing benefit – you won’t run out of room on a page and, if you want to line things up but run out of space, you can insert a new row easily. Finally, saving your flows and referring to them later is easier than if you just had a paper copy; paper flows tend to get lost or discarded, while digital storage is comparatively easier.
However, there are some notable drawbacks to flowing on a computer. For one, there is less information retention than writing by hand. Studies have shown that writing something on paper, by nature of it being slower, forces one to think more carefully about what they want written down, instead of just creating a mindless transcription by typing nearly every word. This is important because the goal of flowing (as a debater) is not to create a transcript to reference after the round; the purpose is to write down arguments, enabling you to think of responses and beat said arguments. In a similar vein, typing your own arguments makes it easier for you to just read off of them, as if it were a prewritten document – many debaters find it hard, mid-speech, to transition from doing that to making more extemporaneous arguments. Flowing on paper in shorthand makes it easier to extemp arguments, versus reading a prewritten script that suddenly ends. It’s more difficult to use shorthand on a computer – many people use symbols and abbreviations by hand that can’t easily be replicated.
Keep in mind that much of this is also a matter of personal preference. Some debaters hate flipping through papers, finding it disorganized; other debaters hate making a split-screen on their laptop to have their flow and speech doc up concurrently. Ultimately, all of this is a matter of personal preference to some extent. Both approaches to flowing are defensible. The only point I would make emphatically is that novices who are first learning to flow should do it on paper – there is a steeper learning curve to doing it on paper, and a debater who does not learn it at the outset might struggle to learn it later. Plus, the benefits with regard to information retention are especially acute for younger debaters.