||On Topic Writing - John Meany, Claremont McKenna
Class and contest debate preparation (idea brainstorming, subject research, argument
briefing, speaking practice) is based on the specific language of a set of debate
topics. The importance of debate topics cannot be underestimated. They establish
the issues in controversy. They motivate students to explore the world. They
direct library, Internet, and personal reading. They introduce students to new
ideas; students use them to spark their own intellectual creativity and argument
innovations. And, as students quickly realize from their experiences in challenging
debates, the particular words selected for a debate topic may carefully distinguish
the arguments that are available for the proposition or opposition teams.
Debate tournament hosts, league officials, teachers, and student practice leaders
recognize that it is important to write appropriately worded topics. Badly worded
topics generally result in bad debates. Because the topic is interpreted by the
proposition as a statement of proof (that is, a claim that the proposition team
will attempt to show is more likely to be true than false), an entire debate
may collapse due to confusing, vague, or awkward wording. Most people, then,
would probably agree that it is a good idea to avoid badly worded topics. But
what are the guidelines for a well-worded topic for debate?
First, a topic author should consider the purpose of a topic statement.
It ought to be designed to promote serious discussion and argument clash. It
should provoke important and challenging questions. It ought to be a subject
that is controversial or encourages an examination of obvious difference. In
other words, the subject should promote debate. A topic should also be an issue
for which students could draw conclusions. Debates do not merely create an opportunity
to open an issue for discussion but they also produce a definitive result, a
conclusion that an opinion on an issue may be better than other opinions on the
matter. In this way, a debate topic should allow students to identify and determine
concluding arguments for its side of the topic.
Topics should be interesting; they should appeal to different students. They
should focus the discussion. They must be in the form of a simple declarative
sentence. They should help students create powerful arguments explaining the
world they know. Topics may be about the issues faced by middle school students
each day, e.g., “Schools should require uniforms,” “Cell phones
should not be permitted at school,” or “Peer pressure does more good
than harm.” Debate topics should teach students to advance sophisticated
arguments about the subjects they learn at school: “The United States should
significantly increase space exploration,” „Schools should ban animal
dissection, or “The United States should pay reparations for slavery.” In
addition, topics should provide opportunities for new learning, a chance for
students to develop research skills and understand a complex world: “The
United States is winning the war on terror,” “NAFTA should be extended
throughout the Americas,” or “Congress should pass the Clear Skies
A topic author should consider many issues. Is enough research material for debating
the topic statement? Is the information presented in a way to engage students?
Is it accessible? Does the research avoid technical or difficult language so
that students from different grades (the MSPDP permits students from the fifth
to the eighth grade to participate in competitions) could use it? In other words,
a topic author should probably do some of the work that is expected of a debater
confronting a particular topic. Some exploratory examination of the research
is required before a final decision can be made to use a topic.
In addition to these general guidelines, here is a list of some popular problems
with debate topics, as well as recommendations as to how to avoid them.
1. Avoid “cutesy” wording.
A motion for debate ought to be written for the purpose of introducing a debate.
Motions should not be composed for the purpose of making the person the topic
to appear particularly witty or clever. Do that on your own time. Please avoid
this sort of topic: “The public education system should start doing its
own homework” or “The United States should unplug the electric chair.” It
is easy enough to use topics that directly address issues of public education
and capital punishment, such as, “The No Child Left Behind Act does more
good than harm” or “Abolish the death penalty!”
2. Avoid multiple proofs by the proposition team.
It is difficult to make one proof in a debate. It is unfair to require that the
proposition team prove several issues simultaneously. Poorly worded topics of
this kind include “Standardized testing is fair and necessary,” or “Columbus
Day is the worst national holiday.” The first topic makes the proposition
team prove that standardized testing is both fair and needed. The proposition
team arguing the second motion would have to compare Columbus Day to each of
a half dozen other national holidays. This is too much work to have to accomplish
in a brief debate.
3. Avoid extremist language.
“Always,” “all,” “never,” and other unconditional
words or expressions place too high a burden or proof on the proposition team.
Not only must the team establish its proof but it must be one for which there
are no exceptions, even an extraordinarily rare case. Examples include “The
Federal Government‚s power comes at the expense of all the states” or “The
time for any negotiations for peace in the Middle East has passed.” These
topics raise important issues but better wording might be “The Federal
Government should not surrender its authority to states” or “The
United Nations should establish negotiations for Middle East peace.”
4. Avoid false dichotomies.
In a false dichotomy, a debate teams are presented with two choices, when in
fact there are more than two choices. For example, "If today is not Tuesday,
it must be Wednesday." The fact that it is not Tuesday does not mean that
it is Wednesday. The speaker would have to make an argument to show that it is
Wednesday. Examples of false dichotomies include: “Public schools should
give up freedom for safety” or “An oppressive government is better
than no government.” The listed topic areas are not bad areas for debate
but the topic wording could certainly be improved. It is, once again, possible
to transform these topics for meaningful debate: “Public schools should
increase student surveillance” or “In this case, the United States
should reduce free speech rights.”
5. Avoid awkward or confusing expressions.
These are actual examples of topics used in intercollegiate debate competition.
When announced, they were greeted with calls of “Shame!” This House
believes that we cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold the nation hostile
and our allies hostile.” “This House would rock mob style.” “Title
IX is a bridge too far.” “Nero’s encore demands a response.” Huh???
Topic authors need to carefully examine each topic; they also need to consider
a tournament topic set. It is important that the topics are balanced and diverse
when considering all 4 or 5 topics for a league tournament. In particular, a
topic author, league official, or tournament host (the person or committee making
the final decision on the topic list) should evaluate the topics to ensure that
students debate some familiar issues, as well as more challenging and lesser-known
matters. Of course, it is important that topics have little or no argument overlap.
It is often the case that topic language will change but arguments will not.
For example, it is possible that the different motions, “The United States
is winning the war on terror,” and “Saudi Arabia is more an enemy
than an ally of the United States” may produce many proposition and opposition
arguments in common, as both topics would focus on terrorism and Middle East
Like most serious educational tasks, topic writing should involve the efforts
of several people. It is a good idea to have trusted colleagues review topics
before a final topic announcement. The preparation work should be accomplished
over time. Patience is a virtue (but the statement, “Patience is a virtue,” should
never be a topic.) Topic construction should include time for some preliminary
research and review. The more care is devoted to topic writing, the more opportunities
debaters will have to subsequently, rigorously, and meaningfully examine and
debate the substantive details of important issues.