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WR227 Amy Warren

A custom library website for Amy Warren's WR227 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.


Topic sentence

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


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, relationship - 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.
  • pro, con, for, against - rather than using words that convey opinions about topics, use nouns that help you learn about your topic(s) from every angle.

Brainstorm 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.

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

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.

Build a strategic search

Now you have a list of important words and phrases. These are your search terms - what the library catalog or database will use to find you awesome articles, books, and more.

But beware! Do not dump all of these words into a search box. Use the library catalog or database’s Advanced Search tools to organize your ideas and build a strategic search. For help with this, contact a CCC Librarian or try out our Search String Builder (linked below).

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?

Keywords vs. subjects

Keywords (also called search terms) are words that describe your research topic. Keywords are chosen by you. Keyword searching is how you search in Google and Bing. You think of important words or phrases, type them into a search box, and get results.

  • Pros: Easy.
  • Cons: Not very precise. Results in a lot of irrelevant and useless search results.

Subjects (also called controlled vocabulary) are words that an article has been tagged with because the article is mostly about those subjects. Subjects are a quick way to find the most relevant articles on a topic, but you have to be careful because the only place the database searches for those words is in that Subject field. If you don't have the right words to search with, you'll get no results. You find Subjects listed in articles that are relevant to your topic, type them into a search box, change the "field to search" to Subject, and get results.

Subject tags in EBSCO.

  • Pros: Results in relevant, topic-specific results. You will see way fewer irrelevant or useless results.
  • Cons: Harder - subjects may not be phrases you would think of off the top of your head.
Keywords vs. Subjects
off-the-top-of-your-head words describing your topic   "controlled vocabulary" words describing the content of each database item
more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways   less flexible to search by - you need to know the exact pre-determined subject term
databases and search engines look for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together   databases look for subjects only in the subject heading field, where the most relevant words appear
may yield many irrelevant results   results usually very relevant to the topic

Identifying & searching with subjects

In CCC Library's catalog

  1. Go to CCC Library's catalog Advanced Search.
  2. Perform a normal search, using words/phrases that describe your topic.
  3. Browse through your search results; choose 2 or 3 hits that are relevant.
  4. Open the item record and look for words under the heading "LCSH and PCI subjects"
  5. Write down any relevant terms.
  6. Redo your search using those terms; change the "Any field" dropdown menu to "Subject."

Subject terms and Advanced searching in CCC Library's Catalog


In CCC Library databases

Option 1

  1. Find a good article.
  2. Identify "Subjects" listed in the article that are relevant to your topic.
  3. Perform a new using those terms; change the "Select a Field" dropdown menu to "Subject Terms."

Subjects in an article record.

Option 2

  1. Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic. Usually these options will be at the top of the database search screen or under the Help section.
  2. Write down any relevant terms.
  3. Redo your search using those terms; change the "Select a Field" dropdown menu to "Subject Terms."
    • Here's an example from EBSCO:

Subject Terms thesaurus in EBSCO.

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