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English & Creative Writing Resources: Topic Formation & Search Strategies

Resources in support of studies in English language and literature

Plan Your Search Strategy

  • Your search strategy depends on your type of assignment (e.g. research paper, literature review, argumentative essay, etc.)
  • Determine the type of source that best fits with the type of information you need (e.g. use scholarly journal articles for information regarding medical research case studies).
  • The tool you use to find your source depends on the type of source you need (e.g. use the databases to find scholarly journal articles).
  • Book catalogs, databases, and search engines operate differently, so you will need to know how to use each tool.
  • Use the keywords in your topic question, along with their synonyms, to build a search query for each tool.
  • Make an appointment with a librarian or stop by the reference desk and talk with a librarian. Bring your assignment to the reference desk, and ask for help on developing a search strategy.


Take Practical Steps

After you have narrowed your topic and planned your search strategy:

  • Use tools like Credo Reference and Gale's Virtual Reference Library to find basic information on your topic.
  • Use Dominican's online catalog to compile lists of helpful books and films to provide a broad overview of your topic.
  • Once you have a basic understanding of the topic, try searching Dominican's databases to find more focused, peer-reviewed literature on your research topic. 
  • Also, consider relevant government or recognized association websites. 
  • Make an appointment with a librarian.
  • To format your bibliographic citations, in whichever citation style your instructor prefers, try using RefWorks, found on the Library's homepage.



Keywords vs. Subject Headings

When searching for information for your research it is helpful to know the difference between keyword searching and subject term searching. That way you can utilize both techniques to locate relevant sources.


Keywords are significant words or phrases that describe the key concepts in your research topic. When you search for information using keywords any item containing the keyword in the title, abstract, author, text, etc. will be listed in your search results. 

Subject Terms or Subject Headings are descriptive words assigned to an information item by catalogers upon being published. They denote the item's subject or main themes. Items with similar themes or about similar subjects will be classified together under a very specific subject heading. Look for subject heading or subject term links in the library catalog and databases to locate a list of items on a particular topic area.

Below are the main differences between keyword searching and subject searching:


Subject Term

  • Natural language words describing your topic.  A good way to start your search.
  • More flexible for searching.  You can combine terms in any number of ways.
  • Database looks for keywords anywhere in the record (title, author, name subject headings, etc.)   
  • Often yields too many or too few results.
  • Often yields many irrelevant results.  
  • Pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words assigned to describe the content of each item in a database or catalog.
  • Less flexible.  You must know the exact controlled vocabulary term or phrase.
  • Database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear.
  • If a subject heading search yields too many results, you can often select subheadings to focus on one aspect of the broader subject.
  • Results are usually very relevant to the topic.

(University Library, 2013)


Subject Headings vs. Keywords

(WMHS Library, 2010, November 2)

Search Words?

(Hartness Library, 2012, May 11)

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