How to Write a Lincoln Douglas Debate Case

Added on by Henry Zhang.

So you're ready to write your first case! Remember, you should always have a pre-written case for the entire 6 minutes of your 1AC and the first 2-3 minutes of your 1NC. The previous lessons have covered what is needed in general to properly form arguments and prepare you for rounds. All that's left is to put it all together.


The first part of your case is the definitions. Usually resolutions have words in them that are highly specific phrases found in topic literature or are things that can be somewhat ambiguously interpreted. Thus, the first thing that you should do is define all of the words that are relevant within the resolution. In general, you should try to have your definitions be fair, accurate descriptions of the terms.

From a tactical standpoint, however, you shouldn't be defining every possible word. This would be a big waste of your time and you would make the judge of the debate round start to lose interest. Instead, you should only make sure to define words or phrases if it affords you some sort of a strategic advantage. This includes preempting responses your opponent could make about specific types of definitions.


Observations are the only specific type of argument that we haven't yet explicitly gone over, but in a way they act very similarly to definitions. Observations are arguments that set up a framework regarding how we should interpret things in the resolution. But it's worth noting that in general they tend to go beyond the scope of normal definitions.

An example of an observation is the statement that the words "ought not" express categorical prohibition and a result a single exception is enough to disprove the resolution. Normally, they serve as additional ways to clarify how to interpret and evaluate arguments in the round.

Unlike most other things, observations are a purely optional part of your case and you should only include them if you have a good reason to. Conversely, you don't want to have too many observations. Limit yourself to about two or three. This will force you to be more strategic in articulating what interpretive issues are most important for the round.

The Standard

The standards were covered in more detail in a previous lesson, but there are certain additional norms used when setting up the standards in a case.

You should in general spend not too much time setting up your value. Because it is something very vague and generally accepted as good, there usually isn't too much debate over it. However, you should have explicitly state your link between the value and the resolution. In the cases where there is a debate over the value, having that link is key to ending up on top in that debate.

The bulk of your time in establishing the standards should be spent setting up your criterion. In general you should have 3-4 justifications for your criterion or reasons why your criterion is the best fit for your value. Each of these warrants essentially serves as a reason why your standard should be used over your opponent's. If you win your standard and show it is more important, your case should be tailored such that all of your impacts directly link to your criterion, implying that you will almost definitely win. Again, the reason to have 3-4 is that you want to put in a substantial amount of work, but at the same time you don't want to go too overboard.


The contentions are where the meat of your arguments are and this is the place where arguments that you would conventionally use in what people intuitively think of debate would go. In previous lessons, we've gone over how to make an argument and how to gather evidence, and these are all things that should be done in order to strengthen your contentions.

When it comes to presenting your arguments, they should be very structured such that your position could be very easily simplified to an outline. This means that in general you should have no more than 2-3 big points (which will be labeled your contentions), and under each point you should have no more than 3 subpoints. Even though you are limited in terms of the number of arguments you can make, you can and are encouraged to provide as many warrants and justifications as possible.

Differences Between Affirmative and Negative Cases

Given the immense time differences and expectations for the first affirmative speech and the first negative speech, the way to write each of these cases differ slightly. In general, the content stays the same, but for the most part it is the amount of content in each section that fluctuates.

The first biggest difference is in the level of the definitions. While in the AC, it is almost required to provide definitions, in the NC it is virtually never needed. Normally, affirmative debaters will provide reasonable definitions with little real room for contention. However, this isn't always the case. As a result, as a negative debater, you should have all of the possible definitions you need ready and during your speech you need to make a decision as to which definition you should read. Again, in general you won't need to read any, but it still pays to be prepared.

Observations are also rarely present in negative cases. Again, it comes down to your discretion as to how important a particular argument is for your position, but if you decide to include observations in your case, I recommend you use no more than 2. You do not want to spend an inordinate amount of time on interpretational issues when you also have to respond to everything the affirmative said.

When it comes to adapting your standards analysis, most of the content should still be there. The biggest difference is that you should probably have slightly fewer justifications for your criterion. The reason for this is that you need to save time, and you also have to respond to your opponent's standard during this speech. In that response, you can make comparative arguments essentially showing why your standard is better. In some cases, it isn't necessary to include a standard. You should only do this when you really want to save time and either your opponent's standard is the same as yours or you are perfectly comfortable using your opponent's standard for your impacts.

Again on the level of the contention, everything is mostly the same between the affirmative and the negative. The biggest difference is just the quantity of information. In general, instead of 2-3 contentions, aim to have 1-2. This is more due to time restraint than any strategic purposes.