General Research: Keywords and Questions

May 10, 2021

If you’re doing extensive research for an article, book, or just for fun, there are techniques that can make the process easier.

The first step was to look at the general overview information on your topic. I explained how in the Exploratory Phase post.

In this post, I’ll talk about how to use the information you found to target keywords and keyword phrases to help you find more specific information. You also need to create some questions to focus your research. While the exploratory phase was about taking a broad view,  this step will narrow your research focus.

Finding keywords

Keywords are either a word or phrase that provide specific terms used to search for materials on a topic.

They help you target the exact information you need more efficiently. Using the wrong words will bring the wrong information, wasting your time and causing you to miss crucial material.

Steps for finding keywords

To find keywords, complete the following steps:

  1. Go through your notes and highlight or circle any terms that repeat or that specify what you want to find out.
  2. Make a separate list of any terms you don’t want.
  3. Go to either a search engine or an online database and search for your keywords and phrases. Make note of new ones that seem promising.


Use the keywords and phrases you isolated to search in online search engines, databases, or even in book indexes.

A couple of tips for online queries:

  • Use quotation marks around phrases that need to go together in a certain order. For example “George Washington.” If you type George Washington using no quotes, you will get information on George Forman, or Washington, D.C. The quotations tell the search software that you want those specific words together with nothing in between and in the order you typed them.
  • Use the correct language to combine keywords and phrases into queries. You can search for this information on the search engine you’re using. But the main ones are usually AND, OR, and AND NOT. The information can be found under the name of the search engine AND “advanced search.”

Here are examples of each:

  • AND combines the words and phrases and only brings back results that contain both. “George Washington” AND presidency should bring you information that contains both terms.
  • OR will bring you articles that contain either one of the terms. This will greatly increase the results you get. “Physician-assisted suicide” OR euthanasia is an example.
  • AND NOT will eliminate terms you do not want to be included in your search. Patriots AND NOT football would be an example.

Use those hints for searching in online library catalogs, search engines like Google, or online databases. Your local library should help you gain access to online databases. They are valuable sources of information that cannot be found on the internet.


Finding a focus should be your goal. Determine what, exactly, interests you most about this topic and why. Then see if you can ask a question about it. Think of different angles you can use to examine the topic.

Let’s say you’re researching nutrition. Can you narrow the focus down to one aspect of nutrition? Are you interested in the effects of certain foods on the brain? Do you love Asian cooking and want to isolate particularly healthy foods in that cuisine? Do you want to learn about foods that aid digestion? Think about the most interesting angle to use in approaching the broader topic.

Determining a central question that you’d like to answer will focus your search and help you organize information.

Devote a page in your notebook to jot down questions that come up as you research.

See if you can incorporate combinations of keywords into your questions. These can be helpful later on as well.

As you move on to the next steps, you may continue to find more keywords and questions. Just note them and keep moving. Explore all keywords until you are satisfied you have all the information you need. The next post on collecting sources will help with that.

If anything in this post wasn’t clear or if there is more you’d like to know about finding keywords and questions, let me know!

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