Research for Essay Writing in English

This libguide was created to provide information resources and tools for the students of the Essay Writing course ENG 1100

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Apply proper usage of search operators (e.g. boolean operators, truncation symbols, parentheses)
  • Select relevant keywords, expressions, and terminology to retrieve useful information and resources
  • Understand the need for a search strategy when searching in a library catalogue or database 

1. What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is an organized structure of key terms used to search a database or a library catalogue. It combines the main concepts of your search question in order to retrieve accurate results. 

Your search strategy will account for:

  • possible search terms, keywords, phrases or expressions
  • truncated or wildcard variations of search terms
  • usage of search operators

2. Use search operators

Search operators are commands that you can use to filter and refine your search results. Here are some search operators that you should know about.

Boolean operators:
They form the basis of mathematical sets and database logic. They connect your search words together to either narrow or broaden your set of results and help you find exactly what you are looking for. 

Boolean operator Usage Example
  • Narrow your results
  • Tell the database that ALL search terms must be present in the resulting records

(media AND violence AND teenagers)

  • Broaden your results by telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records
  • Connect two or more similar concepts or synonyms
(teenagers OR adolescents)
  • Narrow your search by telling the database to ignore some concepts
  • Exclude words from your search

(media NOT newspapers)

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings. Adding a truncation symbol at the end of the root of a keyword enables you to search for some variations of that keyword 

Truncation symbols may vary by databases, but we often see: *, !, ? or (Check the help or support page of a database to learn more about the symbols they use)


  • Canad* = Canada, Canadian, Canadians, Canadiens, Canadiennes, etc.

  • modern* = modern, modernism, modernist, etc. 

Wildcards are used when you a word that can be spelled in different ways but has the same meaning. Wildcards substitute a symbol for one letter of a word. 

Truncation symbols may vary by databases, but we often see: * or ? (Check the help or support page of a database to learn more about the symbols they use)


  • wom*n = woman, women

  • colo?r = color, colour  

Quotation marks:
Use quotation marks when proximity between two words is key. This is useful with expressions, proper names, or concepts with more than one word. When using quotation marks, the database will search for exactly what you enclose into the quotations. Make sure to have the proper spelling. 


  • "Mark Twain"

  • "climate change"

  • "Civil War"

Use parentheses to group search terms together. When putting parentheses, you can perform several Boolean searches at the same time. A database will perform the search enclosed in parentheses first.


  • ("climate change" OR "global warming")

  • (teen* OR adolescent) AND media AND violence

(Some content from this section was taken from MIT Libraries - Database Search Tips CC-BY-NC 4.0)

3. Steps to build a search strategy

To build a search strategy, you should start with your research question. We will use the following question for our example: Does fair trade chocolate actually mean better conditions for cocoa farmers?

Step 1: Locate the main concepts of your question

  • fair trade
  • chocolate
  • cocoa farmers
  • working conditions

* Don't be tempted by words such as: Cause / effect / determine / factors / role / research / trends / benefits / advantages / drawbacks / disadvantages / impact / etc...  They are not the main concepts of your questions and will not improve your search strategy.

Step 2: Make a list of synonyms of your main concepts. Are there other ways to express those ideas or concepts?

fair trade equitable trade, fair trading, sustainable, ethical trade
chocolate cocoa, cocoa beans
farmers growers, farmworkers, farm industry
working conditions labour, employment, work practices

Step 3: Organize your keywords/concepts with search operators to create a search string

(chocolate OR cocoa) AND ("fair trade" OR sustainab* OR "equitable trade" OR "fair trading" OR "ethical trade") AND (farm* OR growers OR workers OR "farm industry") AND (labo?r OR employ* OR "work conditions")

*This is an example. A search string can be complex or simple, depending on your need

Step 4: Test your search strategy in the library catalogue or a database (see Running your search) and refine as needed!


If you have questions, or if you run into problems that the guide does not address, e-mail Catherine Lachaîne at


This online guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. This page is attributed to Catherine Lachaîne.