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WR121 Niziolek

A guide to library research for Shilo's amazing WR121 students.

Write out your research topic/thesis statement

The first step to brainstorming search terms is having an initial topic or thesis statement to work with. Not there yet? Spend five minutes choosing a focused topic, then come back here.


Step 1. Take a piece of paper or open up a document and write down your topic or thesis statement.


Research question: Should it be illegal to use animals for sports and entertainment?

Step 2. Circle or highlight the most important individual ideas that make up your topic.


Research question with key terms circled: illegal, animals, sports and entertainment.

Words you don't need to search for and why: 

  • it, to, and, of - articles and prepositions can usually be ignored because they are so common
  • should, be, use, for - adjectives and words that indicate a relationship between two ideas can usually be ignored because they may eliminate otherwise relevant results from your search. The more search terms you add to your search, the fewer results you will get. 

Brainstorm for search terms

Step 3. Think about other words or phrases that have similar meanings to each idea – basically, brainstorm synonyms. Write down at least one similar or related term for each idea.

Brainstormed search terms. Illegal, against the law, unethical. Animals, pit bulls, dogs, elephants, lions. Sports and entertainment, dog fighting, zoos, circuses, cock fighting.

If you’re having a tough time thinking of terms, do a basic search on the main idea. (In this example, dog fighting might be the main idea.) Skim through an article or webpage for additional or alternate terms – sometimes seeing how an author writes about something helps.

Add quotation marks around phrases

Step 4. Look for terms that are phrases, meaning more than one word. Place quotation marks around these phrases.

Search terms with quotation marks around phrases, like "dog fighting"

What does this do?

These quotation marks will force the database or search engine to search for your phrase exactly as you have it written, rather than separating and searching for each word individually. Remember, you do not need to add quotation marks around single words.

Test yourself

Want some more practice brainstorming search terms?

Use the sample topics below and 1) circle or highlight the most important individual ideas that make up the topic and 2) brainstorm search terms for each idea.

  • Sample topic #1: Should U.S. states and cities insist that food stamps be spent on healthy foods to reduce the prevalence of health problems linked to obesity?
  • Sample topic #2: Should US adoption records be open rather than sealed?
  • Sample topic #3: To what extent does the private life and private morality of a public figure affect his or her ability to serve the public interest?

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