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Effective Search Techniques

A guide to effective searching tips for your essays, projects and dissertations

Your search strategy

Use this worksheet to plan a search strategy using your own area of research interest. 

  • You can download a print version of the worksheet from here

Starting your search

  • Not all databases allow you to do a natural language search, such as “is there a link between violence in the media and crime?” You need to pick out the keywords in your topic, and then link them with operators, such as AND or OR or NOT.


  • The keywords in the topic is there a link between violence in the media and crime?” are violence, media and crime. You then need to think of synonyms, that is words with the same meaning. In this case:

Violence Media Crime
Bloodthirsty Television Criminal
Cruelty Film Offender
Aggression Offence
  • You will also need to think of alternate spellings or abbreviations and acronyms i.e.
    • colour OR color 
    • USSR OR Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


  • Write your topic/question/problem in the box below and underline the key concepts


  • What is a synonym? A synonym is a word that has the same meaning or implication of meaning as one or more other words 
  • What is an acronym? An acronym is an abbreviated form of term or phrase where words are exchanged for letters i.e. STEM for 'science, technology, engineering and mathematics'
  • Write a key concept into each box in the top row, and in the column beneath, list as many synonyms/alternatives you can think of.  Remember to include singular/plural, acronyms, newer/older terminology, US/UK spellings/terminology, technical terms.

Search Operators

  • Look at your synonyms above and consider how you might streamline the search using truncation (e.g. therap*), wildcards (e.g. wom?n, *therapy), and phrase searching (e.g. “Cognitive behav* therap*”)


  • Think about any limits that might apply to your topic/question/problem.
Date range Language Material type Other     


  • Consider how you might broaden/narrow your search if you find too few/too many references
Broadening search Narrowing search

e.g. think of more synonyms. Remember to use truncation.

e.g. add more precise concepts. Apply more limits.                

You should now be ready to start entering your search on the database of your choice.


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