Topics and Keywords

This module will guide you through formulating a topic, pre-searching, focusing your question, generating a beginning keyword list, and finally, starting your search.

1. Identify keywords and concepts associated with a topic.
2. Generate related terms to be used in a search in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences.

  • Choose A Topic
  • Pre-Search
  • Search
  • Take Inventory
  • Identify Keywords
  • Narrow Your Topic

Choose a Topic

Start by drafting a research question.

If your topic is assigned to you:
• What clues does the assignment description give you about your topic?
• Can you focus on a narrower part of your assigned topic?

If you need to choose your own topic:
• Choose something that interests you and your audience
• Use class readings and notes to guide you in your choice of topic
• What is a problem you would like to solve?
• What do you wish you knew more about?


You will need to gather information about your topic. Taking time to read through information on your topic helps make sure you know the important concepts, dates, and people that need to be included in your search. These sources will help you learn more about your topic but are rarely used as official cited sources for academic work.

Ways to start the pre-searching process:

• Gather ideas (websites, blogs, newspapers, topic overviews)
• Start building a list of terms as you gather your background information
• Create a concept map

To find background information from Encyclopedias and dictionaries on your topic, do the following:

– Enter a broad search term in the Library Quick Search box.
– When you have your results, go to Content Type and select More.
– Choose Reference. Now you will have a list of background information, encyclopedias, and dictionaries to learn more about your topic.
– Click Available Online to access the full text. 


Developing a strong research topic can take many steps. Some may need to be repeated as your questions and interests change.

Some useful tips to keep in mind:

• If one of your words doesn’t find anything when you are searching, come back to your list and try something different.
• If everything you find mentions your keywords but isn’t really about you research question, you may need to focus your topic until you find better matches.
• If you can’t find very much on your focused topic, try making your topic a little broader. You might not find much on the theme music for American wrestlers, but expanding your topic to theme music in sports might bring more results.
• Remember the search process is very fluid and it does vary! Revisit the steps in this module at any point as you research.

Once you have a focused topic and a list of words to guide your work…you are ready to start gathering sources! Remember you can go back to any of these steps throughout your research.

Take Inventory

Figure out what you already know about your topic and what you still need to find out.

The following list of questions creates a road map to keep you focused as you begin searching:

• What do you already know?
• What did you learn from your gathered information?
• What will you need to research more deeply?
• What questions do you need to answer about your topic?
• Start a list of questions

Identify Keywords

It is helpful to have prepared a list of words that describe your topic. Think about how you might explain your topic to someone in your class. How would your language change if you were talking to your instructor?

Some useful ways to think of keywords are to find:
• Synonyms (Example: Food, Meal, Cuisine, etc)
• Related terms
• Broader or narrower concepts
• Words found in pre-searching process

For example, you might use the word “Food”, but you could also talk about Cooking or Dining or even Diets. These words will be the keywords that you use when conducting your research.


  • Definitions

    Edible material.

  • Synonyms

    Aliment, board, bread, cheer, chow, comestible, cookery, cooking, cuisine, diet, drink, eatable, eats, entrée, fare, fast food, feed, foodstuff, goodies, grit, groceries, grub, handout, home cooking, keep, larder, meal, meat, menu, moveable feast, nourishment, nutriment, nutrition, pabulum, provision, ration, refreshment, slop, snack, store, subsistence, support, sustenance, table, take out, tuck, viand, victual, vittles.

  • Related Terms

    Baking, boiling, brewing, broiling, browning, frying, grilling, heating, roasting, simmering, sizzling, steaming, steeping, stewing, toasting.

    Banquet, breakfast, consume, do lunch, eat out, fall to, feast, feed on, lunch, sup, supper.

    Dietary, fast, nutritional therapy, regime, regimen, restriction, starvation, weight-reduction plan.

Narrow Your Topic

You may need to focus your topic. For example, you might start with a broad topic like “food.” After finding some background information on food, you might decide you are really interested in food as a status symbol.

Some things to keep in mind when focusing on a topic are:
• Focus on a particular aspect of your topic that interests you
• As you learn more, you may need to narrow your topic again

Narrowing Topics