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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Keywords and Questions

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If you’re new to writing general nonfiction, you might wonder where to start. My previous post on the Research Process for General Nonfiction Writers can get you oriented.

The first step was to look at the general overview articles on your topic. I explained how in the Exploratory Phase post. 

In this post, I’ll talk about how to use the information you found to target keywords and keyword phrases to help you find more specific information. You also need to determine some questions to focus your research. While the first step was about taking a broad view,  this step will narrow our research focus.

Finding Keywords

You’re probably familiar with the concept of keywords, but if you’re a little unsure, here’s a definition. Keywords are either one word or a collection of words (phrases) that provide the terms used to search for materials on a topic. Both print indexes and search boxes online are used to locate information on the keywords and phrases.


Why do you need them? If you don’t have focused keywords you may get so many responses to your query that your results are meaningless. The information you need will then be swallowed up by irrelevant information. This wastes time and may cause you to miss crucial material. 

Steps for finding keywords

To find keywords, complete the following steps:

  1. Go through your notes and highlight or circle any terms that repeat or that specify what you want to find out.
  2. Highlight or asterisk anything that kept coming up that you did not want.
  3. Go to an online database and search for your keywords and phrases. Make note of new ones that seem promising.

So let’s go over each of those steps in more detail.

Step 1: Highlight or circle repeated or specific words that looked important.

When you go through your notebook, you may notice certain words or phrases keep repeating. Medical terms are a good example. Let’s say you’ve been searching for [“Whooping cough”]. You can find it, but most of the time, it was actually under the term “Pertussis.” If that’s the case, you want to highlight both “whooping cough” and “pertussis.” Stick with one highlighter color for keywords to use.

Start a new page in your notebook with “Keywords” at the top and two columns. At the top of one write “keywords to use” and at the top of the second write “AND NOT.” 

Under the first column, fill in words and phrases you want to use like “whooping cough” and “pertussis.” If the term “vaccine” keeps reoccurring and that’s an avenue you want to explore, write down “vaccine” in this first column too.

Step 2: Highlight or asterisk terms that come up that you don’t want.

If you’re highlighting, use a different color than that used in step one. You want to distinguish at a glance between what you do and do not want. 

Here’s why it’s important to identify terms you don’t want. Sometimes your search results can be so clogged with information on things you don’t want, you have trouble finding what you do want.

Let’s say you are looking for information on parachuting techniques. You don’t want most of your hits to come up about a music group from Indonesia that calls themselves “Parachute.” And you may not be interested in parachuting lessons or equipment. Commercial sites are likely to come up on top of the search results because they are more popular or because they have paid for the privilege.

List all the terms you don’t want under the  “AND NOT” column.

For some search engines and websites, if you put “AND NOT” in all caps after what you do want and before what you don’t want, you’ll get a better search result.

Example: [Parachutes AND NOT music*] would be what you would type into the search box, leaving out the brackets. The asterisk at the end of “music” in this search, tells the search engine that you want any wor that has “m-u-s-i-c” at the beginning. So you would get “music” and “musical” and “musician.” 

Step 3: Use a database to find more keywords.

A research database is a collection of books, magazines, newspapers, academic and trade journals, and reference articles that have been collected by a company that pays for the use of the material. This company then charges libraries, research institutions, and individuals for access to the material which has all been placed in a convenient location.

Much of the world’s published information is unavailable on search engines for free. A lot of this information is available on online databases.

So where would you access a database? Your local public library, state library, local community college, or your college institutions (if you are an alumnus), may have databases available for their patrons to use for free. Look at their websites and send them an email or give them a call to see if you have access to any. These are invaluable to the general researcher.

You can also check open-access (free to all) databases like the Directory of Open Access Journals. 

My local library grants access to EBSCO Masterfile. It’s a good, general database to get you started. Below I share screenshots to explain what I am describing.

A Practice Search

So let’s say I have been getting background information on wild edible mushrooms in the northeastern United States. I’ve been collecting these things as a hobby for years and I believe the prepper movement is ready for a good basic primer on how to gather, store, and cook with them.


A query is any string of search terms someone may type into a search box. So I pull up EBSCO Masterfile and type in  [“edible mushrooms” AND “northeastern United States”]. I take the terms from my keyword list. Please remember the brackets indicate this is a search. You do not type brackets “[“or “]“into the search box. I placed quotation marks around the words that I want to search as a phrase. 


Notice the quotation marks around “edible mushrooms” and around “northeastern United States.” They let the database know to only search for those terms, in that order, with no words in-between.

The AND is in all caps because it has a specific function in a search query. It means only search results that have both “edible mushrooms” and “northeastern United States” should be retrieved.  If both are not included in a source, it should be omitted from the results. 

Search results

When you type the query above into the search box, you get an impressive array of previously published material on your topic. Much of it will be useless to you. We’ll discuss how to find the best articles in the next post. For now, scan the titles.

Find one that looks like it would be good for your paper. I’ll choose this one:

When I click on the title above, it takes me to a screen with the article of that title. This is shown in the screenshot below. 

Notice the area underneath the title labeled SUBJECTS. Look down the list. If I see something I had not thought to look under like “Therapeutic use of fungi,” that would be a topic I would add to my “keywords to use” list. Since the list presented here only has “edible mushrooms” and “Cooking,” I may or may not add “cooking.”


Before you click on any article, notice in your search results that depending on the database you are using, a list of subjects will come up.  Add interesting new terms to the list. You’ll want to explore these search terms in future searches for books, other databases, and online.

Just as databases give a separate subjects list, they also tell you what types of sources your results come from. Notice the list to the right. Five types of sources are given for our results. Most come from magazine articles and the fewest come from reference books. 

The numbers in parentheses beside the source types are the number of each type of source on the topic that was searched. For example, you will find 34 encyclopedia articles that discuss this topic. 

  • All results: brings up all the source types by date (most recently published first).
  • Magazines: periodicals that are either for the general public or for specific trades or professions. 
  • Newspapers: theses are usually daily periodicals focusing on news events.
  • Academic Journals: periodicals published by colleges, universities, or other research institutions. These articles have been reviewed for accuracy and reliability by experts in the field. 
  • Encyclopedias: these are articles that have been published in either a general encyclopedia or a special encyclopedia (covering a specific subject).
  • Reference Books: articles that have been published in reference books other than encyclopedias. These could be dictionaries, atlases, handbooks, gazetteers, or almanacs. 


Finding a central question for your manuscript to answer will help you focus your search and keep you organized.

I would suggest having a page in your notebook on which you jot down questions that come up as you research. Right now, you don’t need to have your central question figured out. But it’s super-helpful to note questions that come up whether you use them later or not.

When you’ve gathered a lot of information, looking over this list will help you parse out what’s really important. Then you will have a much easier time putting your manuscript together.

See if you can incorporate combinations of keywords into your questions. These can be helpful later on as well.

You’ve completed step two: Finding Keywords and Questions

As you move on to the next steps, you may continue to find more keywords and questions. Just note them and keep moving. If you are searching for a common term, but the scientific terminology keeps coming up, please write it down. You may be able to find extremely important information under scientific terms that may not be available under the common term.  Explore all keywords until you are satisfied you have all the information you need. The next post on collecting sources will help with that. 

If you have questions or suggestions, please let me know through the form below.

Need help editing, either a nonfiction manuscript or a website? I’m available for that as well.

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