Often, as precursor to writing an essay, a teacher may ask for a topical outline. In some respects, a topical outline is exactly what it sounds like: an outline of the proposed paper, organized by topic. An outline must follow research, so that the writer is not blindly attempting to produce an outline and then forced into following the topics when constructing the essay.
A topical outline is a blueprint of sorts for the final paper. In much the same way that architectural blueprints are, essentially, semi-detailed plans for the eventual construction of a building, guiding those who will do the construction, so too will a topical outline guide your writing. A topical outline allows the writer to organize research in a coherent and logical manner, without necessarily sitting down at a word processor and attempting to “bang out” an essay without prior thought. In architecture, building without plans can lead to crooked walls and corners that are not square. In writing, not having an outline to follow may lead a novice writer towards a disorganized, incoherent mess of a paper.
A topical outline can be a simple as short phrases and key terms, or as detailed as full sentences. The latter is often called a full-sentence outline, and many professors may require this detailed a level of topical outline in the writing process. Many word processing programs have tabs that help facilitate the level organizational headers required in a topical outline.