First, you'll need to think about your topic. A topic can be pretty general to start with, but will get narrower the more you learn about it. Some examples of topics are:
Once you have a basic idea of what you want to research, it helps to think more specifically about what you want to know about that topic. This phase is often where you generate a research question.
Some examples of research questions from the topics above are:
Once you've got a better idea of what you want to know about your topic, you can start by picking some keywords straight from your research question. You can do that by choosing which words are key to your understanding of that topic.
Keywords you could use to search on the example topics are in bold and full phrases you could search for are in (parentheses):
Once you've exhausted all the resources that resulted from that first search with keywords generated from your research question, you can start to think about what else about your topic you can search for. This can include synonyms, related terms, or tangential topics.
For the sake of keeping this simple, we'll use only one of the above topics as an example. Keywords you could use to search on the example topic are in bold and full phrases you could search for are in (parentheses):
Sometimes it might help to map out your thinking. A concept map or "mind map" is an illustration of your literal thinking process. It can be useful to narrow down your topic because it helps you visualize where your brain is going when it thinks about that topic.
Here's an example of a mind map for the topic above (click the image to enlarge):
The mind map illustrates a way to think about your topic and research question. There are three main things you need to know, and other things you can think about in relation to them:
Having trouble coming up with more ways to search on your topic? Try subject terms!
Subject terms are the words or phrases under which the Library catalog or a database have filed resources. For instance, the subject term "Reproductive rights -- United States" is applied to certain books in the Library catalog that have to do with that topic.
If you click that term, it will take you to all books that were also categorized under that subject term, which can be a good way to discover new resources.
Databases have a similar tool. The name varies depending on the database. Some also call it "Subject Terms," some call it "Thesaurus," some call it "Subject Headings," some might call it something else entirely. But they all do the same thing. In databases, they're usually even searchable, which can help you see if there's a better, more discipline-specific way to refer to that topic.
Whatever you do, remember that research is not a one-and-done... it's an iterative process. Iterative means multi-step, as in you're never going to have a perfect topic, research question, or search the first time you try. You're going to need to adjust as you find out more about your topic and you're likely going to change direction once or twice too.