When I was in high school, our writing instruction included a lot of exercises in “the writing process.” Rather than simply turning in a final product, we were required to follow a series of steps that our teachers took to be exemplary in some way — this basically consisted of brainstorming, outlining, rough draft, second draft, and final draft. I’m sure the method was helpful for some people, but I and many of my peers found it to be an artificial series of hoops. Between the rough draft and final draft, nothing substantial would change, aside from perhaps correcting spelling errors or altering wording here and there.
I do appreciate the spirit of this exercise, but where I think it goes wrong is in not teaching students how to think about writing parts of things. We’re supposed to outline the whole argument, then produce a draft of the entire thing, then supposedly rewrite the entire thing, etc. This reinforces the students’ default mindset, which culminates in the ritual suffering of writing the whole thing on the night before — because they have no productive way of thinking about the paper as anything but a whole, they also have no way of conceiving how they could divide up the work. This also leads to the “and another thing!” school of organization that is so familiar to educators from grading papers.
In my experience, diving up the work conceptually and spreading out the work over a series of days are processes that reinforce one another. If you can establish what steps you need to take to make the argument you are setting forth, you can work for a couple hours on step #1 or whatever. Then when you write up step #2, you can see if there is anything in what you wrote for step #1 that could be changed to lead more smoothly into step #2, etc. You might even figure out that maybe it would make more sense to put #2 first, but that would require changing #2 and then changing #1 to fit its new position — rather than a vague, overwhelming task like “reorganizing your paper.” (In my experience, if I suggest that a student do any major reorganization of their paper in a setting where they can rewrite, they almost never do so, and it’s probably because they have no real way of thinking of their paper as made up of pieces and so hear that suggestion as “tear out the whole paper and start over.”)
In short, this method provides a series of bite-sized tasks that feel more or less complete in themselves but nonetheless clearly add up to something bigger over time. I would even suggest that if one were using such a “divide and conquer” strategy, it would be manageable to be working on two or even three papers more or less concurrently, because each would get little packets of time over a longer period, rather than representing a catastrophic lump sum of time that can’t be integrated into any kind of normal schedule. Students’ lives would not be punctuated by horrific panics, everyone could get a good night’s sleep, and the papers would generally be better, so professors would be happier at grading time. Everybody wins!
(Just to preempt some comments: I don’t think I’m the first person ever to think of this idea; I realize that it would mean more work or at least a significant change in most professors’ patterns of working with student writing; I don’t think I’m a genius who has all the answers, etc.)