Before you do any searching in the catalog or a database, brainstorm a list of keywords that describe your topic.
woman vs. female
Consider alternate spellings
labor vs. labour
Consider broader and narrower terms
Great Britain vs. England
Be aware of problems you may encounter:
Homonyms. Remember databases and catalogs match characters, not concepts.
For example, the word "China": is it a country or a set of dishes? The computer can't tell!
Sometimes there is no universally agreed up term or phrase for a concept.
For example, motion picture vs. movie vs. film vs. cinema.
Avoid searching for long phrases or sentences. Extract key concepts instead.
For example, avoid searching "How to design and implement alcoholism treatment programs" | Try instead the keywords: alcoholism and treatment
The database (or catalog) you are searching may help you choose keywords, because many of them systematically assign subject headings to all works listed within them. Look for the "subject terms" or "descriptors" in the record of a book or an article. These tell you what the preferred term is in a database/catalog and can sometimes help you choose other words to search.
For example, this is a screen shot from Discover Local (the library's catalog). The words in the red circle are the subject terms assigned to this book. If you were actually in Discover Local (the catalog) and looking at this record, clicking on the highlighted subject term, Japanese Americans -- Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945, would help you find more works on the same topic.
When you're ready to start searching, begin with very specific keywords, and then go broader if you can’t find anything.
For example, start with a person’s name or an event, rather than just the general term Civil War.
If you can’t find anything specific, start adding more specific terms to a general search: Civil War and women, for example.
Also see the "Smooth Operator" tutorial on YouTube.
Script for this tutorial here (PDF).