Scaffolding assignments are very helpful for guiding students toward completing a long essay, but what can students do more independently to keep the momentum going? Well, the plain old way of carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas shouldn’t be dismissed (a digital notebook would be fine too for those who would prefer that). The student can even make “diary” types of entries from time to time if necessary: if there are days when the student is coming up against a wall, then he/she can write a few sentences to say that it has been difficult making headway with part X of the essay. At the very least, a problem has been identified. You as the professor can use this assignment as a low-stakes one that will not be graded but will be collected once or twice. Ask your students to spend about a half hour on this activity three or four days per week. Inspire them by saying that this can help their ideas to marinate and that they might come across a nugget when they look back at what they wrote a week ago. This assignment has the possibility of making students who procrastinate feel guilty about procrastinating, but that can be viewed in a good way—it might push them to write a few lines eventually!
On a more abstract level, you can tell your students that an essay, coming from the Old French word essai/essay, is more or less “The action or process of trying or testing” (OED) and “A trial, testing, proof; experiment” (OED)—this can help your students feel that it would be okay to write in a messy way at the notebook stage, if they felt at first any pressure to come up with sparklingly great ideas. If students worry that their notebook entries might wander away from the topic too much, then let them know that part of the trek to a “finished” essay involves trying out different ideas (in fact, it can be argued that no essay is ever truly finished—there is always more to explore). The student who recognizes how some ideas are wandering a bit at the notebook stage will have more time to wrestle with rewriting them, as opposed to making the discovery when he/she is scrambling to complete an essay near the deadline. Once the student sees the wandering that is happening in his/her notes from a week ago, then he/she can work on tightening up the argument. Lastly, it is most likely better to accumulate a mess of notes that can be restructured than to stare at a blank page when the essay deadline is looming. Of course the above notions of what an essay can be need not be mentioned in class if the subject that you are teaching requires students to write papers using a particularly structured format. Nonetheless, you can still tweak this notebook assignment in whichever way that you may see fit for your course.