The first step to finding information is being able to describe your topic in such a way that a library catalog or database will understand your query. Before you create your list of search terms, it's important to understand what you are searching.
Full text resources like JSTOR exist, but in most cases you are not searching a full text document. Usually, what you're searching is an item record. A basic item record will usually contain all the information you would expect to find in a bibliographic citation: author, title of the work, year of publication, place of publication and publisher for a book, title of the journal for an article, and page and volume/issue numbers for an article.
The next level of item record will include all of the above plus subject headings or descriptors. Subject headings and descriptors describe the themes or concepts discussed in the work. The most detailed item records also include an abstract or table of contents.
Your goal as a searcher is to match your search term(s) to one of these fields: author, title of the work, subject heading/ descriptor, and abstract/ table of contents. The year of publication can also play a role in your search strategy but usually as a search limiter rather than a search term.
Now that we know where we want our search terms to match let's take a topic and break it down.
Example topic: The role of Satan in romantic poetry
What are some of the concepts we can explore through this topic:
Some basic search terms to start with:
Satan | Romantic | Romanticism | poetry
Sometimes a concept can be described in several different ways. For example, let's consider our tricksy friend, Satan. Satan is also known by many other names that we may want to consider as we build our search:
Satan = Lucifer OR Devil OR Beelzebub OR Morningstar
Using operators (AND, OR, NOT), you can incorporate all of these variations into your search. OR in this case allows you to cross-search all the variations, and then you can use AND to combine the results of that cross-search with the term poetry:
(Satan OR Lucifer OR Devil OR Beelzebub OR Morningstar) AND poetry
Other possible search terms:
Milton | Paradise Lost | Shelley | Blake | Byron | good and evil | sin | exile | occult | religion | Hell | soul | Satanism
Be exhaustive as you brainstorm search terms. More terms mean more opportunities to experiment with in your search strategies. As you search, you will be able to refine your searching based on the results you find (or don't find).
Subject headings and descriptors are controlled vocabularies that describe themes and concepts discussed in a book or article in a systematic way. The same term or phrase is always used to describe a specific concept, and by using a subject heading or descriptor in your search you can quickly pull together items that share the same theme or concept.
As you search using the terms that you brainstormed, make a note of the subject headings that appear in your results. You can incorporate these headings into your search process. According to my topic, I want to find sources that are about Satan in literature, specifically poetry. There is a Library of Congress Subject Heading in the library catalog that can help: Devil in literature.
This subject heading is rather broad, but I could pair it with some of the keywords I brainstormed to create a more tailored set of results:
Example: "Devil in literature" AND Shelley