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Developing a Topic

Defining your topic is not a linear process. You may need to reword or change directions to accommodate information that is or is not found.

TIP: Use a print-out of the Developing Effective Search Strategies worksheet along with this guide to help you define your topic and plan your search.

1. Choose your topic

Once you know your general research topic, ask yourself:

  • Do I know much about this topic?
  • Do I know what angle I want to approach this topic from?

The first step in your research process is to learn some basic information about your topic and to refine and narrow your topic to a maneageable size by consulting a reference source such as a subject-specfic encyclopedia or handbook. They are more in-depth than general encyclopedias such as World Book Encyclopedia and more authoritative than Wikipedia. They often provide a list of recommended books and articles on your topic to help you get started.

These subject-specific reference sources are designed to give you a general overview of your topic, which will help you:

  • formulate a topic statement
  • identify which terms to use in your searches
  • evaluate sources of information quickly and efficiently because you have a general knowledge about your topic

For example:
The topic "Marijuana" is too broad for a research paper. By reading a reference book, I have decided that I'm interested in researching teenage marijuana use in Canada.

Not sure which reference source to consult? Check out the library's research guide in your discipline for suggested reference sources or contact the library for assistance.

2. Write a clear topic statement

Now that you know a little bit more about your topic, it is time to write you topic statement. Putting your topic into sentence form will help you further focus your search. You may need to rewrite this statement as your research takes shape, but writing it down provides a good starting point.

For example:
This paper will discuss the prevalence and use of marijuana by teenagers in Canada.

TIP: Having trouble thinking of other keywords? Take a look at a thesaurus, subject-specific dictionary, or encyclopedia. These sources may help you identify other terms for your search.

3. Select the keywords from your topic statement

Read over your topic statement and think about what the key ideas are associated with it. These "keywords" should be the who, what, where, and when of your question. Identifying 2-3 keywords that represent your topic's major concepts usually provide the best results.

TIP: To help you identify the keyword, cross out all the little "stopwords." Computer search tools (the catalogue, article databases, and Internet search engines) automatically ignore these words. Look at the words that are left over and select your keywords.

This paper will discuss the prevalence and use of marijuana by teenagers in Canada

Keyword A: teenagers
Keyword B: marijuana
Keyword C: Canada

4. Select synonyms and related terms

Based on the keywords you identified above, select synonyms, related terms, and alternate forms for each of these keywords. This step is very important because computers are very literal. They will only look for exactly the words that you tell it to look for. They will not connect a similar way to say something with the word you entered. For example, if you type in marijuana, the computer will only look for marijuana. It will not look for any synonyms or related ways of saying that idea, such as cannabis, pot, weed, etc.

If you take the time to identify all of these possible terms before you begin your search, you'll be ready to create many different searches using the list you prepared. So if one of your searches doesn't get the results you want, you can just move on to the next search. Write down anything that comes to mind. You may not use all of these terms in your searches, but they're listed just in case you need them.

For example:

Keyword A
teenagers teens, adolescents, adolescence, youth, young people
Keyword B
marijuana cannabis, pot, weed, reefer, dope, doobie, ganja, drugs, sticky icky, marihuana
Keyword C
Canada Canadians, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, etc.

Having trouble thinking of other keywords? Take a look at a thesaurus, subject-specific dictionary, or encyclopedia. These sources may help you identify other terms for your search.

Now that your topic is clearly defined, it's time to plan a search.

Effective Searching

Once you have defined your topic, it is time to plan your search for books, articles, and Internet materials.

1. Formulate a search strategy

Using the search terms (both keywords and synonyms) identified when you defined your topic, select from the list to to formulate search strategies. The next step is to use the Boolean operators (and/or) to connect your keywords.

  • Combine different ideas/concepts with AND
    Usually, using only one keyword is not specific enough for your topic.  You can focus or "narrow" your search by joining your keywords with the word "and." When you use "and", you are telling the computer that both terms MUST be in every item found. The more "ands" that you have, the smaller your results will be.

    For example:
    marijuana and teenagers and Canada

  • Combine synonyms with OR.
    If you would like to broaden your search to include any synonyms or related terms for your keywords so that you don't miss important items, use "or" to say that either term is acceptable. When you use "or" you are telling the computer to show items that have either term. The more "ors" that you have, the bigger your results will be

    For example:
    marijuana or cannabis or drugs

WARNING: Be sure not to combine "and" and "or" in the same search box. Put all the terms related one idea (i.e., teenagers) on one line or search box to separate your keywords properly.

Example of a search strategy:

Keyword A: teenagers OR teens OR adolescents
Keyword B: marijuana OR cannabis OR drugs
Keyword C: Canadians OR Canada OR Ontario

For more information about how to formulate searches, check out the library's guide on Advanced Research Techniques: Boolean, Truncation & Wildcards.

2. Select appropriate search tools

Library search tools (i.e., catalogue, specific article databases, and Internet search engines) have different purposes and ways of working. Once you have identified your possible search strategies, it is time to select the appropriate search tools for your needs. To do this, you need to ask yourself two questions: 1) "What kind of information do I need?" and 2) "Where do I go to find these sources?"

  1. Books
    • Some books provide a comprehensive overview of a subject, where as others provide detailed examinations, analyses, or interpretations of a particular topic. Their bibliographies can lead you to other resources on your topic.  Depending on how narrow or how new your topic is, you may not find an entire book on your topic, but there is probably a book that contains information on your topic. For example, a book about teenage drug use would probably have a section or chapter on marijuana. Remember that books usually take years to write and get published, so you may need to supplement information from books with more recent material in journal articles.
    • How do you find them? Search the TRU Library catalogue to find TRU's books, government documents, pamphlets, and videos.
  2. Articles
    • Periodical articles (i.e., articles found in magazines and journals) are a valuable source of current and detailed information on topical issues. They supplement the data found in books. Some topics are so current or are so narrowly focused that the only information written about them is contained in periodical articles. Research in the social sciences and sciences are often first reported in journal articles.
    • How do you find them? Use an article database to find journal, magazine, or newspaper articles. Not too sure which article database to use? Check out the TRU Library's research guide in your discipline for a list of suggested databases.
  3. Websites
    • The Internet provides a wealth of current information on a wide variety of topics, but it should never be the sole or primary source of information. You need to be very careful to closely evaluate every website you use. Internet resources vary in quality and accuracy. Search the Internet after you have read your books and articles so you will be better able to evaluate the quality of the web information. It will save you time and energy in the long run.
    • How do you find them? For a list of suggested web sites, check out the TRU Library's research guide in your discipline and/or use an Internet search engine.

Now that you know what kind of information you need and which tools you need to use to find them, it's time to implement your searches.

3. Search

Take the search strategies that you created from your list of terms and run them in the various library tools (i.e., library catalogue, an article database, etc.).

4. Review results and revise search

  • Not enough results? Revise your search terms and/or remove one of your keywords to broaden your results.
  • Too many results? Use limits (scholarly journals, or by publishing year, etc…) and/or add another keyword to narrow your results.


  1. Keep track of which search tools (library catalogue, specific article databases, etc.) and which search strategies you use so that you can remember what you have done. You may want to go back and refine your search, and you don't want to waste time by doing the same thing over and over.
  2. Once you have located items, write down the information required for a complete citation (author, title, publication date, etc.) to help you keep track of what you have already found, to provide you with enough information so that you can find it again if necessary, and to put together your reference list.
  3. Doing research is not a one-shot experience. As you learn more about your topic, you may need to refine your search.