Writing Well: Seek and Ye Shall Find

Seek and Ye Shall Find

You've got your subject, you've narrowed it to a topic, and you've written your thesis statement. Now it's time to get the facts you need to prove your thesis. In this section, we play Dragnet and get the facts, ma'am.

All the information you need is available—but you have to know how to find and sort the treasures from the trash. Let's plunge right in by exploring the different reference sources available.

Basic Training

Before you even thumb through the card catalog or turn your computer on, try the following ideas to make your search as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Write Angles

Scan the Library of Congress Guide to Subject Headings for help finding synonyms or related terms for your research topic.

Word Watch

Primary sources, such as autobiographies, diaries, eyewitness accounts, and interviews, are created by direct observation. Secondary sources, such as biographies, almanacs, encyclopedias, and textbooks, were written by people with indirect knowledge. Effective research papers often use a mix of both primary and secondary sources.

1. Use key words. List the key words for your topic, using the title, author, and subject to direct your thinking. For example, key words for a research paper on the poem “Howl” might include …

  • Title: “Howl”
  • Author: Allen Ginsberg
  • Subject: The Beats

2. Include related words. Brainstorm synonyms to expand or narrow your search. For example, if you're writing on overcrowding in national parks, here are some possible synonyms:

  • Environmentalism
  • Wilderness
  • National monuments
  • Conservation
  • Federal lands
  • Government lands

3. Learn the lingo. Nearly every research tool has an abbreviation—or two. The World Wide Web, for example, is abbreviated as WWW; Something About the Author is called SATA. You can learn the abbreviations for print sources by checking the introduction or index. For online sources, check the Help screen.

4. Know your library. They are the latest and the greatest, these libraries. Ask your reference librarians (a.k.a. “media specialists”) what special services the library offers, their cost (if any), and the time involved. Find out from the start what extra help is available.

5. Consult reference librarians. I'll teach you how to find nearly every reference source you need on your own, but you might hit a research roadblock. That's why we have reference librarians. Don't be afraid to ask these marvelous experts for help; that's why they work in the library and not in the DMV.

Now, it's time to learn how to use libraries and library catalogs efficiently so you can get the primary and secondary sources you need.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.