Finding your materials, part 1:
Hold off for now on Library databases of journal articles

If you do a search too early in your project you will get an overwhelming number of results to sort through, and you will probably only look at the first few articles, giving your paper a very narrow foundation and increase the chances that you'll make errors that a broad foundation will help you to avoid.

The trick is to allow reliable authors do your work for you: he or she will give you a good overview of your chosen topic. Then, when your understanding is comprehensive enough to be asking the right questions, you'll do a precise database search (it's a good idea to ask a reference librarian for help--they're great at designing searches) so that you get a manageable number of results and find what you need quickly.

Do you see how this saves time? Wrap your brain around an overview by competent scholars, and then you won't need to sort through a huge number of journal articles to understand the basic information in your chosen field.

A variant of this strategy, which falls under "snowballing" --and useful when you're researching something that's entirely new to you--is to find a good children's book on your topic that's aimed at an 8-12 year old audience. Your initial response is probably "WHAT??-- a children's book?!?" But you see, children in the 8-12 age range adore facts, and it takes a competent person to present the basic points of a topic in a clear and engaging way that will satisfy this audience. If you read this book, you'll get a quick and easy overview--and a good book of this kind will have a bibliography for further reading. So, get the basic overview, then you'll have the understanding to make use of the more "grown-up" books. Tho this is a legitimate technique, remember to leave the children's book out of your bibliography, and to refer to your bibliography as a "Select (or Selected) bibliography," which indicates that you're listing the most important of the sources you used.

© Jan Mainzer