How to Take Notes in a Debate Round (How to Flow)

Added on by Henry Zhang.

Flowing is a style of note-taking that helps you summarize every argument in a concise and efficient way. It's important to have a good style of note-taking because of the nature of debate. In round, you must respond to everything your opponent said in order to have a good chance of winning the round. Because they aren't going to pause to give you enough time to write down everything they said verbatim, you have to adopt certain strategies to improve your ability to take notes.

Flowing Layout (and Why It's Important)

The biggest difference between flowing and note-taking in general is the format. When you flow in debate, you have two separate sheets of paper that correspond to arguments dealing with the AC and with the NC - affirmative constructive and negative constructive. The piece of paper corresponding to the AC has five columns whilethe one corresponding with the NC has four. This relates to the fact that there will be five speeches that discuss the affirmative case while only four will discuss the negative case (because the negative case is only read in the second speech). In general, cross-examination is not flowed.

The utility of dividing up speeches into distinct columns is to allow for better organization amongst arguments. This division creates a pseudo-grid, where the columns represent each speech and each row can correspond to an argument. This makes it very easy to remember what arguments responded to what and makes responding easier.

Many people when flowing choose to use two different colors to represent each speaker. While not required, it can lessen potential confusion as to who said what because the colors correspond to individual people.

Further, flowing is very useful in organizing the arguments that you're about to say. Let's say your opponent gave seven reasons why felon disenfranchisement is unjust. The debate would be much clearer and much more decisive if you could label which arguments responded to which arguments. Flowing helps in this way. When you write down arguments, there is a natural place for you to write down your responses - namely right next to it.


Because you have so many things to take note of and remember, writing in full sentences or even full words is not advised. Instead, when flowing each person should do their best to develop a shorthand that can make your notes more efficient yet still decipherable. While there is no best way to develop a shorthand, there are several different strategies that people use.

One good practice is to use symbols for commonly used words. For example, concepts like morality or justice are very likely to show up frequently. The way that I personally annotate them is by writing either an 'm' or a 'j' in a circle. Further making use of characters like '$' or '=' is a great way to cut down on the amount you have to write down.

Further, another strategy that people use is to omit all of the vowels from words and to similarly omit words that don't convey content. So a way of writing the previous in shorthand could be: "nthr strtgy ppl s s mt ll vwls frm wrds & smlrly mt wrds dnt cnvy cntnt". Obviously this strategy has its problems when words, such as "use" are predominantly composed of vowels, but the key to developing a good shorthand is to practice and experiment.


Another important aspect of flowing is being able to preflow. Preflowing is the process of flowing your own case, as if you were listening to someone read your speech, before the round begins. The reason preflowing is important is because it helps with your organization. Just like you need to keep track of your opponent's arguments so you can appropriately respond, you also need to keep track of your opponent's responses to your argument. Preflowing thus creates the same grid-like pattern that makes organization easy.

How to Improve

Flowing is very difficult to get good at, but there are many different ways for you to improve. The best way by far is by watching recorded debates that you can find online. While many of these debaters featured in these videos talk fast, the best way to get better at flowing even regular speeds is to practice in these very difficult scenarios. This is also helpful because you know what types of structures to expect and can see how some of the best debaters in the nation argue.

If you've exhausted the list of videos (or are too hesitant to start with them), there are many other ways to get better at flowing. One of them is to listen to music - particularly rap - and to flow it. You should do this with songs that you are unfamiliar with, and it is very easy to see how close you were to getting down everything, as most lyrics to music can be found online.

Another way to improve is to flow the news. Very often on newscasts, the anchors will cover a particular topic for a short amount of time before switching to another story. This type of rapid switch often parallels the way debaters switch between arguments, and is very helpful. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can try flowing the financial news.