So your professor assigned you a research paper in their class and you’re unsure of where to start.
We’ve all been there.
You have a topic. You know little about it. You need information. Where do you even begin?
That’s where the “pre-search” process comes in.
“Pre-search” is the process of learning about your research topic and planning your research path so you’re successful.
How does this help me?
By doing pre-search, you form a plan to conduct effective and efficient research. In the pre-search stage, you jot down the questions rattling around in your head, focus your topic, and identify where you should go to find information for your paper. Pre-search also helps you form a compelling thesis.
Ok, so how do I do pre-search?
You could jump straight into the research phase, but by doing that, you’re going to get overloaded with information, have notes everywhere, and spend hours sifting through tons of useless information. Or, you could save yourself a headache and try doing these four simple steps:
1. Think about what you already know about your topic and review general information
Say your topic is recycling. Consider what you already know (e.g., you can recycle paper, paper, certain types of plastic, etc.). Also, review general information on your topic. What shows up when you do a simple Google search? What does Wikipedia have to say about recycling? Casually browse through web pages and look for the big ideas. It will give you the basic information you need to start considering where to go next.
2. Make a list of questions you’ve thought of or need to answer
As you read, think about:
- What part of the topic interests you?
- Who’s involved in your topic?
- What questions naturally come to mind?
Based on this, try to narrow down your topic. For our example on recycling, let’s say you read about and are interested in how plastics can be recycled into clothing.
Next, make a list of questions you want to answer on the topic. Using our example above, that could be:
- How do they turn plastic into cloth?
- What companies do this?
- Is the clothing comfortable? Warm? Colorful?
- Is this an expensive or inexpensive process?
- How many plastic bottles would it take to make one shirt?
Jotting down your questions helps you pinpoint the scope of your paper.
3. Consider where you could find the answers to your questions
Now that you have a list of questions, think about where you could find the answers.
For example, you probably wouldn’t find much information about recycled plastic clothing in a general recycling article. Information on the process would likely be found in a newspaper article, a journal article, or even via an online video. Searching for the websites of companies that make recycled plastic clothing would also be a valuable resource here. Now would be a great time to ask a librarian for database suggestions.
4. Brainstorm and write down topic keywords and concepts you can use in your search
Finally, make a list of related keywords and concepts you can use in your search. Here’s a list using our recycling example:
- Recycled plastic clothing
- Plastic bottle fabric
- Shirt from plastic
- Plastic bottle fashion
- Textile fabrics – recycling
- Recycled products
- Sustainable textiles
Bonus: As you search, see what other subject headings and terms are suggested to you. If any seem useful, add them to the list! If you’re still struggling, ask a librarian for help.
By taking the time to “pre-search” first, you’ll have a better understanding of your topic and the direction that you want to take with your paper. The better you understand your topic, the better chance you stand at getting a good grade on the paper.
A few extra minutes to potentially boost your paper and save some stress? It’s worth a shot.
Now that you’re ready to jump into research, don’t forget to keep tabs on the sources you use by creating references and citations with our MLA formatter tool, APA formatter tool, or Harvard referencing tool.