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English LibGuide for HWC: General Search Strategies

Sample Search Strategies for English Assignments

This page lists sample search strategies and research guidelines for some English assignments. Check with your professor to make sure these general strategies will work with your specific assignment!  

The Basics of Research 

Biography and Tribute 

Cause and Effect 

Controversial issues, Persuasion, Counterarguments, and Mediation 

Literary Criticism and Analysis 

Primary Sources



The Basics of Research

When someone starts a research assignment, a typical mistake is to think too broadly about it. This is usually born out of having an interest in a subject but a limited understanding of everything that subject could encompass. For instance, if you wanted to write a paper about hip-hop music, you might do a search for that term in the databases and find yourself overwhelmed by all the information. If you tried to write about all of the information such a broad search would turn up, you would soon find yourself with a book-length manuscript. Since your assignments are likely to be measured in pages instead of chapters, you will want to narrow your topic down as much as possible. Here are some methods for narrowing your topic:

Ask Questions

One approach is to ask questions about your topic to narrow it down: Think, “Who, what, when, where, and how?”

Question: What aspect of hip-hop do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Hip-hop and activism? Hip-hop and therapy? Hip-hop and conflict resolution?

Question: Who do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Teenagers? Adults? Students?

Question: Where do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Workplace? High school?

Possible Narrowed Topic:

How can high schools use hip-hop conflict resolution to increase student safety?

Bring Yourself into the Paper

Another approach is to take an assigned topic and then try to find out how something you are personally interested in relates to that topic.

Assigned Topic: Climate Science


Possible Subtopics:

How can businesses benefit by going green?

How does meat consumption impact climate and ecology?

How could concert venues become more ecologically friendly?

How could climate change contribute to social unrest in Sudan?

First, a couple of definitions: A thesis statement is what your paper intends to prove or show.  A research question is what you need to learn to write your paper.


Many of us have been taught that we should start with our thesis statement and then write the paper to back it up. But that is not necessarily the best approach. Instead of starting with a thesis statement,try starting with a research question. This is a good idea for two reasons.

The first reason is that starting with a thesis statement presupposes that you already know enough about your topic to have not only a well-informed opinion, but the most up-to-date and expert opinion possible on the matter. The vast majority of us don’t have that kind of knowledge about academic subjects, so research is required.

The second reason is that starting with a thesis statement builds your own biases into your search and limits your findings only to the ones you expected to find in the first place, which keeps you from learning important new things.

Let’s say you want to write a paper about binge drinking and college students. If you start with the thesis statement, “Binge drinking among college students is caused by peer pressure and rebellion,” and search for those terms, one of three things will happen:

  1. You will find all the information you need to know because peer pressure and rebellion are the only two reasons that college students binge drink
  2. You will find no information because experts all agree that binge drinking is caused by other factors.

These first two scenarios are not very likely, but the third one, which is just as bad for your research, is:

  1. You will find some of the information you need, but not all of it, because your query does not allow for results that show other important reasons that students binge drink.

On the other hand, if you start from the point of asking, “What are the reasons that college students binge drink?” you will find ALL of the reasons that experts think college students binge drink, not just the ones that agree with you. This approach exposes you to a fuller range of ideas about the topic, than you started with, and that knowledge can only make your paper or project better.

After you have completed your research and read the articles you retrieved, in order to write a thesis statement, all you have to do is answer your research question with the information that you have discovered.

“What are the causes of binge drinking among college students?”

May become:

The causes of binge drinking among college students are socialization, stress, and the institutional promotion of drinking culture.

Before you can take a definitive stand on an issue, you need to be well informed about it. That’s why you should start with a question, not with a statement.

Because of the information life cycle, where you look for information depends in large part on when it happened. For reasons of public interest, technology, and economics, information moves through society at a somewhat predictable pace.

Where you look depends on when it happened. For breaking news, look for electronic sources. For older news, look in  daily newspapers and magazines. Well after the fact, look for scholarly articles and books.

Why? A news team can film something happening, send it back to the station, edit it, package it, and then broadcast it on the news in a matter of hours. If the event is newsworthy, then newspapers and magazines can arrange to have coverage or commentary about the event appear in the next day’s, week’s, or month’s issue. It takes longer for something to appear in a scholarly journal because those sources publish less frequently and because the information therein typically includes in-depth analysis. Finally, books and encyclopedias take even longer to write, edit, and publish. The general rule is that the longer it takes for the source to appear, the more in-depth the coverage will be. Note, however, that encyclopedias provide general overviews, and therefore are meant only to introduce you to the topic.

A Caveat! The internet extends the timeline. Webpages or blogs can be edited and/or uploaded hourly but may contain information from any point in the past or present. Even if the information is newly uploaded, it may be old information that reflects only what was known at the time of its creation. An excellent use for such sources is to provide social or historical context to your research.

What Your Research Process Might Look Like: If you have been given the task of writing a research paper about President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to convince the American public that the 1991 Iraq War was a worthwhile endeavor, you might consider consulting the following sources: 

Preliminary Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica entries:

  • Iraq and the war of 1991
  • George Herbert Walker Bush
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Kuwait

An Internet Search:

  • (advertising OR marketing OR public relations) AND (Gulf War OR Iraq War 1991)

Deeper Reading

EBSCOHost and JSTOR searches for full-text, peer-reviewed journals:

  • (advertising or marketing or public relations) and (Gulf War or Iraq War 1991)

The Library’s Online Catalog:

  • Iraq War 1991 and mass media

Contextual Research

A search:

  • Desert Storm AND Gulf War 1991

Newspaper or Magazine Archives in Microfiche/Microfilm or online databases:

  • Scanning the dates October 1990 to February 1991 for examples of new stories, ads, and editorials to determine the “mood” of the time.

All of these sources come from different time periods and contain information from different points in the information life cycle. Understanding how they all fit together to for a complete picture is part of information literacy.

We all have opinions about how things ought to be, but research is more than simply finding sources that agree with us. Research strives to find accurate, up-to-date sources, whether they agree with our preconceived notions or not!

Recognizing Our Own Biases

Politics and Information

News Media and Bias

Different Kinds of Bias in Reporting

Typically, academic work requires either MLA or APA citation style. Generally, MLA is expected in humanities and English, while APA is expected in social sciences work. Your instructor should clearly inform the class which citation style she prefers. If there is any doubt, ask. For your English 102 class, you will be using MLA citations.

Citations contain the information necessary for your reader (instructor) to understand what the information source was and where you located it. Citations will always contain two parts, an in-text citation that is directly connected to the information you are incorporating from the source material, and a longer citation that will be located on your Works Cited page and contains all possible details about the source material.

For more information constructing citations and for examples of citations for various types of sources (articles, books, websites, images, etc.), please see the following resources:


The Purdue OWL site offers the MLA style guide online for free.

Harold Washington College MLA style guide.

Most research problems are complex. Whether you need to know how a recent change in the law will impact your business or how global warming will impact the growing regions for staple crops, you will most likely be performing multiple searches to understand the issue, define its context, and propose a solution.

Consider an assignment to determine a new approach to curtailing alcohol abuse on college campuses.

Such a research task would require you to research several different kinds of information and synthesize them into one document. Research subtopics might include:

  • Examples of problems caused by alcohol abuse among college students,
  • Models of treatment that are already in existence
  • How those treatments have or have not worked.

Each subtopic requires that you read the available research and make a claim based on what you learn.


Compose individual search strategies for each subtopic.

For instance, the search strategy for the first part of your essay may look like this:


The next query may look like this:


The third would follow the same strategy, but with a still different focus:

Note that in this search, I added a fourth search box to include the idea of success or failure



Evaluate the articles for objectivity, timeliness, and accuracy; compare and contrast the information in the articles to look for trends or outliers; note useful or striking examples; and think about the claims each article makes and the evidence it uses for support..


Synthesize the information and organize it compellingly to create claims for each subtopic. Make sure you show how the research led you to your understandings.


Repeat the process! Search, read, and write for each subtopic. Keep in mind that you are not writing several miniessays, but one large, cohesive whole. It is up to you to show how each subtopic relates to the others, and in turn, how all of your claims work together to make the broader point of the research paper. 

Biography and Tribute Speech Research


A biography is a straightforward research task. In the databases, you can often simply search for your subject's name:

Langston Hughes


Hughes, Langston

If you retrieve too many results, you can do an advanced search:

Langston Hughes OR Hughes, Langston


biography OR achievements OR accomplishments

Biographical information can be found in many places. If you are writing on a political figure, perhaps they are featured on a relevant government website. If you are writing about an artist, author, poet, musician, you may find websites dedicated to professionals. If you are writing about a business professional, they may be featured in a business publication or on a company website. These are all additional resources that you can tie into the resources you locate through the library.

Search on  for your subject. In order to retrieve only sources that mention your subject's name, try enclosing the full name in quotation marks:

"George Washington Carver"

"Benjamin Franklin"

"Amelia Earhart"

In order to retrieve only sources that are housed on government or school webpages, add a domain filter to your search: or

A search for "George Washington Carver"

Cause and Effect

First, write a research question about your topic.


What are the causes of global warming?

What impact will global warming have on coastal regions?

What impact will global warming have on agricultural productivity?


Second, break your question down to its keywords.


causes, global warming

impact, global warming, coastal regions

impact, global warming, agricultural productivity


Third, think of synonyms or keywords.

causes: reasons, predictors, precursors, drivers, explanations

impact: effect, results, consequences, outcomes, aftermath, by-product 


Fourth, conjoin those keywords with Boolean operators.

AND narrows your search

  • Global warming AND consequences

OR broadens your search 

  • consequences OR effects OR outcomes


Fifth, put it all together

  • Global warming AND (consequences OR effects OR outcomes)

Most CCC databases could be potentially useful for researching cause and effect, depending on your subject. For instance, business databases are more likely to cover the economics of global warming while science databases are more likely to explore the actual mechanics.  Encyclopedias and General Reference databases, on the other hand, will provide a broad overview. If you do not know much about your topic, it might be best to start there. 

As you can see, we have many databases spanning the entire curriculum here.

Searching on the open internet can give you an overwhelming number of results. To help filter out as much extraneous or useless information as possible, try nesting your terms with parenthesis and limiting results only to academic sites.

Nesting you terms helps you keep like ideas together:

(causes OR reasons) AND (police violence)

will retrieve any webpage that contains either the word causes or the word reasons but only if it also contain the phrase 'police violence."

To specify that you only want to retrieve education or government sites, you can add this string to your search:


A search for (causes OR reasons) AND (police violence) AND ( OR


Beyond the mechanics of searching, you should also be aware of the pitfalls of Internet research. While it may be true that searching the Internet is easy, it is not necessarily easy to find factual information. Accurate information may be listed in the search results beneath biased, distorted, or completely made up propaganda.


The Internet does not care.


Because of the way search engine algorithms are constructed, it is easy to end up "discovering" only websites that correspond to your own biases. Make sure that you are evaluating the pages you encounter with an even hand, whether you agree or disagree with the content. I recommend judging information on the criteria of Accuracy, Objectivity, and Timeliness. But there are many useful rubrics to consider for evaluating sources:

Controversial Issues, Persuasion, Counterarguments, and Mediation

Research assignments often require that you investigate a controversial issue and  persuade your readers to believe as you do about your topic. The same assignment may also require you to present and refute counterarguments. A counterargument is an argument or set of reasons put forward to oppose the idea espoused in your paper. That is, if your side is A, you have to present their side, B, and show why A is still the better option. Still other assignments may ask you to mediate between two opposing positions. That means finding a compromise that both sides can live with. 

Regardless of your exact assignment, it is always a good idea to research your topic before taking a side. Resist the urge to search only for articles that agree with your preconceived notions. Instead, seek credible, objective information and be open to learning new things. After reading widely, you are in a better position to make an argument that is backed up by facts. Consider that it is better to let the facts determine your opinion than the other way around!

To gather background information about your topic, start with:

(Your Topic) AND (history OR origin)

To read about why your topic is considered controversial, try:

(Your Topic) AND (debate or issues or challenges or controversy)

After reading widely about your topic, you will be in a better position to take a side that can be defended.

For exposure to multiple viewpoints about your topic

General database of academic journals in the sciences and humanities. Includes full text scholarly / peer-reviewed articles.

Provides full-text online access to back issues of selected scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences.

Newspaper Source This link opens in a new window

Available through EBSCOHost, this database with cover-to-cover full text for more than 40 national (U.S.) and international newspapers with selective full text of more than 330 regional US newspapers.

Opposing Viewpoints in Context This link opens in a new window

Covers hottest social issues, such as offshore drilling, climate change, health care, and immigration. Has full text, editor selected articles. Helps students research, analyze and organize a broad variety of information for conducting research, completing writing assignments, preparing for debates, creating presentations and more.


For background information about your topic

CQ Researcher provides award winning in-depth coverage of the most important issues of the day. The reports are written by experienced journalists, footnoted and professionally fact-checked.

Multidisciplinary database of full text encyclopedias and reference sources for research and ready reference. Enables one search that covers all sources. Subjects include arts, sciences, medicine, and the humanities.

This database contains full text for nearly 500 popular, high school magazines. MAS Ultra – School Edition also provides more than 360 full text reference books, 85,670 biographies, over 107,000 primary source documents, and an Image Collection of over 510,000 photos, maps & flags, color PDFs and expanded full text backfiles (back to 1975) for key magazines.

Available through EBSCOHost, this database with cover-to-cover full text for more than 40 national (U.S.) and international newspapers with selective full text of more than 330 regional US newspapers.

ProQuest eBooks This link opens in a new window

Electronic books covering a wide variety of academic and professional subject areas.

ProQuest Newsstream offers recent U.S. news content going back to 1980.

Collection has more than 4000 books in the social science areas of: business, management, counseling, criminology, education, geography, health, media, communication, politics, international relations, psychology, and sociology. Bibliographic searches only.

Historical and current United States government publications.


For academic articles about your topic

General database of academic journals in the sciences and humanities. Includes full text scholarly / peer-reviewed articles.

Provides full-text online access to back issues of selected scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences.

Full text and indexing/abstracting for hundreds of journals that cover all branches of the military and government.

Full text for nearly 500 education journals.

Biomedical and life sciences journal literature.


For information in a specific subject

Please look through the list of databases by subject. We have databases so support every course in the curriculum.


While it may be true that searching the Internet is easy, it is not necessarily easy to find factual information. Accurate information may be listed in the search results beneath biased, distorted, or completely made up propaganda.


The Internet does not care.


Because of the way search engine algorithms are constructed, it is easy to end up "discovering" only websites that correspond to your own biases. Make sure that you are evaluating the pages you encounter with an even hand, whether you agree or disagree with the content. I recommend judging information on the criteria of Accuracy, Objectivity, and Timeliness. But there are many useful rubrics to consider for evaluating sources:


CCC Librarians have created many resources to help you find and evaluate information on the open internet. Take some time to investigate all of our resources.

To learn more about searching on the open internet, including elements of search engine design, search tips, and political aspects, visit's page on Online Information.

Literary Criticism and Analysis

Literary analysis can be pursued in several different ways. Perhaps you are conducting a close reading of a specific work or you may be looking to tie the literary piece to a larger social issue. 

First, You may want to start your search with simply the title of the piece you are working with. This will help you to view articles that have been written about the work to get a sense of how it has been approached by other scholars. For example:

  • "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Second, If you already have a specific theme or aspect you are interested in, you may use it as additional keywords. For example:

  • female voice, gender, feminist, narrator

Third, conjoin those keywords with Boolean operators.

  • AND narrows your search
    • "To Kill a Mockingbird" AND "female voice"
  • OR broadens your search 
    • "female voice" OR narrator OR gender
  • Put it all together
    • "To Kill a Mockingbird" AND ("female voice" OR gender OR narrator)

While it is highly recommended when locating resources for a literary analysis that you utilize the specialized literature databases and literature analysis books held within the library, you may be interested in locating additional resources on the internet. There are literary journals, author-created websites, and educational websites that may provide additional information. For instance, if you are writing on a poem, you might find the Poetry Foundation or have additional information. However, if you are simply using a search engine, such as Google, Yahoo!, or Duck Duck Go, please approach results warily as there is a lot of editorial (opinion) content written on literature and housed in easily accessible blogs, which would not be considered up to college research standards. 

Primary Sources

primary source is an original object or document from a specific time or event under study. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, interviews, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, survey data, observations, diaries, letters, photographs, videos, paintings, works of literature, ancient pieces of pottery unearthed in Iraq, government documents, statistics and more. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies — research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made.

secondary source is anything that’s written about a primary source, such as  an essay about a novel, a  newspaper article about AIDS research, a history textbook, a movie review, or subsequent thoughts on The Gettysburg Address.

Tertiary sources use primary and secondary courses to construct a narrative and/or theory. Examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedias and textbooks.

Can a single source ever be both?

Not really, but it can be confusing.  For instance, if you are writing a paper about global warming, a newspaper article that discusses new research on the topic issue is a secondary source.  But if you are writing a paper about the media’s coverage of global warming, then the newspaper article is a primary source.  What you are studying changes your relationship to the material. To further muddy the water, a secondary source may very well INCLUDE primary source materials in the form of pictures, statistics, or quotes, and that MIGHT work for your teacher, but it might not.  Likewise, to ensure accuracy, it is a good practice to track down the primary source if you can, just to verify it.


This chart, created by librarians at the Indiana University Bloomington, illustrates kinds of primary and secondary sources by discipline:

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Archeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of Neolithic artifacts
Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionists
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism interview biography of publisher Randolph Hearst
Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature novel literary criticism on Desolation Angels
Music score of an opera biography of the composer Mozart
Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

The librarians at Princeton offer a good explanation of primary resources.

Depending on the nature of your assignment, you may find primary sources in the book catalog, in the databases, and on the internet.

In the Book Catalog

Books written during the time you are studying are primary sources. Here is a search for the Civil Rights Movement limited to books that were published between 1960 and 1969.

A search in the online catalog fof Civil Rights Movement books published in the 1960s.


In the Databases- Historical Articles

The databases contain two different types of primary sources. The first type is historical articles. You can specify a date range of publication when you search to find articles written during whatever time period you are writing about,

Baby boom and World War II search limited to 1940-1959. A primary source search in ProQuest newspapers.


In the Databases- Original Research Articles

The databases also contain academic and peer-reviewed articles that may contain original research. To find these, search in the databases for combinations of keywords that describe your topic. Then filter your articles (left-hand side of the screen) to peer reviewed and academic journal articles. 


Many of those articles will be primary sources, but not all of them. To make sure, skim the abstract, methods/methodology, and results sections of the articles. Look for statements of process showing that the author actually did‚Äč the work.  What kind of original research is described? Surveying, sampling, experimentation? Does the author describe a first-hand experience?  (i.e.: First my team did this, then we did this, and then something happened!) 


A search for covid-19 and treatement limited to peer reviewed, academic journals.


In the Databases--Documentaries or Interviews

The databases also contain video archives that may contain speeches, interviews, or documentaries about your topic or a person of interest.  Look at our video offerings here.


On the Internet

You may be able to find digitized versions of historical images and archived newspapers online. It is a good idea to verify these as much as possible before including them in your paper. Likewise, you can find statistics and government documents, which also qualify as primary sources. Finally, YouTube or other sites featuring videos may have interviews or speeches.

Go to the (or and search for:
Your Topic AND statistics
Using limits results only to government webpages.
A s4earch for child immigrants AND statistics
Go to the and search for:
"Your Topic" AND interview OR speech
Youtube search for Dr. Martin Luther King and speech

Ask a Librarian

Librarians can help you: Learn research skills, find reliable sources, access library materials and databases, understand and create citations, and so much more!