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ENGS 005D: Writers at Work - Harrington (Fall 2017)

choosing, narrowing a topic; creating a keyword search

Create a Keyword Search

  • AND - narrows a search by combining two or more terms. All terms must be present.
    Example:  immigrants  and   somalia
  • OR - broadens a search by combining synonyms or alternative forms of words. Any of the words must be present. Write down any commonly used alternatives to/synonyms for your search terms and connect them with or
    Example: immigrants   or  new americans  or  refugees         

  • NOT - excludes terms from a search; narrows and focuses a search   Example: north africa  not  morocco

  • TRUNCATION (aka wildcard) - symbol used at the end of a word or rootword to retrieve variant word endings, including plurals; makes a search more efficient by decreasing the number of searches.    Example: immigra* retrieves: immigration, immigrant, immigrants, etc.
    Many (not all) databases use the * as the truncation symbol. Check the online Help in each database to find which symbol is used.

  • Put the search together. Make your search more efficient by using the "and"   "or" connectors in one search.

Keyword Search - Introduction

Keywords : Words/terms that represent the main points/ideas of a topic -  the most significant words in a topic, book or article. Used when searching databases and library catalogs as well as search engines on the Web.

Keyword searching finds words anywhere in the database record - in the title, subject headings, author's name, etc. Use the most important (or, "key") words in your topic, to get the most relevant results.

Identify Key Concepts
Write down your research question and circle or underline the words or terms that express the main idea/s.

Develop a List of Search Terms and Related Terms

  • For each idea/concept, brainstorm a list of keywords that best describe your research question.
  • Think of synonyms, as well as broader and narrower terms for each keyword.
  • Translate the keywords in your research question into the language of the databases you use. Databases may use different words or phrases to describe the same idea/concept. There may be several useful articles that use different terminology to discuss an issue. So, it's important to keep a record of the database and the terms in that database that yielded the most useful results.

How to Choose a Topic

The best papers emerge from your interest in a research area--if you're not interested in it, why should the reader be?

  • Discuss topic ideas that interest you with Professor Harrington.
  • Look at the topics covered in your course readings.
  • Think about the topics discussed in class resulting from the course readings and/or from Professor Harrington's lectures.
  • Read essays or entries of interest to you in encyclopedias and dictionaries listed in this guide. One or more might spark your interest.

As you begin to think about your topic....

  • What do you already know about this topic, and what parts of it caught your interest?
  • Make sure to do some reading on your topic before you start, especially if you're new to the field. An encyclopedia essay may be useful to introduce even more aspects of a topic. Also, check the news to see what the conversation is.

How to Narrow a Topic

Areas of focus may be:

  • time period (current, historical, ongoing?)
  • geographic region, specific place, specific culture
  • demographic group (gender, age, economic status, educational level, ethnicity/culture/race, etc.)
  • specific aspect (religious, political, environmental, medical, economic, legal, etc.) of the topic
  • specific event related to the general topic
  • specific person/s associated with that topic

Based on the scope of your paper, sometimes exploring one focus is appropriate; sometimes more than one focus is appropriate. You'll determine this once you begin searching, based on whether you're finding way too much or very little information.

An encyclopedia essay may be useful to introduce even more aspects of a topic.  Sometimes it takes several attempts to properly refine a topic. You are aiming for a research question that will enable you to make good decisions about what kind of source material you need and where you should look for that material.

Sometime using a “Concept Map” helps you create a visual diagram of the thinking you are engaged in, so you can reflect, sort, and refocus the ideas easily. Concept mapping is a good way to visualize the connections your mind makes between concepts and ideas. A concept map often generates keywords and synonyms/related terms.  When trying to create a research question, concept mapping helps organize your thoughts and can lead you to isolate ideas that can make for a solid research paper.

There are no wrong answers! This is the phase of researching when you can let your mind go wherever it wants to.