Using books effectively

This is a guest article written not by me, but by JJ Yu and Rebecca Solomon from Focus Debate. Hope it helps!

Personally, I can attest to the power of including books in the prep process: beginning to do so allowed me to immediately grasp the heart of the topic and write more nuanced, compelling arguments. My partner and I went from a team that struggled to break to bidding consistently and reaching late outrounds. Now, I cannot imagine researching a topic without books.

Why use books to research?

While reading online articles can be an easily accessible way to learn about the topic quickly, they often offer surface level analysis that merely summarizes the author’s published work. Consequently, reading online often leaves you without a deeper level of analysis. The author behind that excellent op-ed you cite in your affirmative case, for instance, most likely writes more deeply on that topic in their book.

Debaters of any level can benefit from reading books, and doing so can help you improve at every step of the debate. Well-read debaters give the best logical responses in rebuttal, often get the better of their less informed opponent in crossfire, and write arguments that are more strategic and more compelling, because they are based in expert analysis. Few articles can match the depth that books provide, especially when focusing on a particular aspect of a resolution.

How do you utilize books most effectively?

Tip #1: Read actively

Despite being told by every teacher I’d ever had to annotate as I read, I never did learn to do this until I started studying for the SAT and realized exactly how much purposefully marking up the text improved my comprension. Reading shouldn’t just be a passive experience, where you are the vessel receiving information, but an interactive one, where you record your ideas and flag what is important for you.

Tip #2: Learn to scan

Reading books for research purposes isn’t like reading a novel. Even the most well-researched, topical books will likely include information that is irrelevant to the topic. Instead of sitting down and reading the full book paying attention to every detail on every page, vary your pace and attention depending on the material’s relevance. As you read more, you will improve at identifying what part of each section, chapter, or page is relevant and what isn’t. Additionally, make use of the Table of Contents or the index to direct where you should begin in the book.

Tip #3: Use the appendices, references, etc.

In order to put together their book, the author most likely used a lot of informative sources that could be useful to you. If a part of the book is particularly interesting, it is probably cited. All of this can be found either footnoted or referenced in the back of the book. Check out these for even more information on specific aspects of the book or topic.

Where can I find useful books?

This is perhaps the most common reason why books are so under-utilized in public forum. When topics are so specific, it is difficult to know what literature will or won’t be applicable. It is a time-consuming endeavor to read a whole book, and most busy high school debaters simply don’t have the time on their hands to do so if the subject matter may not even be relevant. For many, reading books becomes financially prohibitive, because you must purchase three, four, or five books to ensure you get one or two pages of relevant content.

Focus Debate was founded to address this problem. For each topic, we send you two of the most useful, relevant books on the topic, written by the top experts in the field. Each month’s package also includes materials meant to make the above tips easy for you: two accompanying “Context Guides,” designed to direct your attention to the most helpful part of the sources, and an Expert Additional Reading List. We hope this can improve depth in the debates you'll have throughout the year.