Writing an academic essay conforms as well as any task to Parkinson's Law: the work to be done expands based on the time allotted to the task. Thus, a student who works on the paper for two months, absent a self-imposed deadline before the due date, will as likely be working the night before the paper is due as will the student winging it on the last day. The work may or may not be as frenzied, and may require less coffee for the stretch drive than will the last-minute writer, but the diligent pre-planner still has work to do.
In writing, however, this occurs in part because of the unattainable goal of perfection in a subjective realm. A conscientious student can use any available time to make a paper better. The corollary to Parkinson's Law is thus also true, though ideally not to be tested: the work to be done can be condensed into the time allotted to the task. Accordingly, this post will lay out a plan for different timelines a student may have allotted for writing the paper.
The Eight-Week Plan
You have planned for plenty of time. Be proud. This allows you to work steadily, delve in deeply to your topic, and deliver your best work. The below timeline will help you do so.
First four weeks: Get to know your subject matter well. If you are writing about a particular text, read it several times. Take no more than margin notes the first two reads, then begin breaking it down. Understand the literal meaning and the subtext, the hidden assumptions and premises of the text. Find points of agreement and disagreement or, if you are analyzing literature, think of comparisons and contrasts with other texts, whether stylistic, thematic, or something else entirely. After you have done this, read secondary materials, other people's analyses and opinions that you can use to inform your own, to develop your ideas with an understanding of those of others.
Fifth week: Draft your paper. Build it based on your ideas, using citations not to drive the writing, but rather to supplement. Even if your paper is a research paper, focus on what your ideas are, built around your thesis statement. Other ideas influence you, and you must acknowledge that. But every draft of your essay should show your own original thought process. Your length doesn't matter yet; get the ideas on paper, as you will have time to trim or expand later.
Sixth week: Put your essay away, and congratulate yourself for your diligence to this point. Feel free to think about it, but when you separate yourself from the text, your mind will focus on the ideas instead. Or, it may focus on baseball, chess, Katy Perry, or any number of other topics. The separation, though, will help you focus on the writing as writing, and not as the fruit of your labor and child of your heart and mind.
Seventh week: Focus on substantive editing. Do your ideas work, now that you've stepped away from your writing and returned with fresh eyes? Have you explained them well? Is your writing interesting? This may also be the time to expand your draft to the proper length with better explanations (for every idea or example, you need to explain how or why it ties back to the thesis statement), or trim the essay by being less wordy or cutting your weaker examples. Use this week to make your paper structurally and cognitively sound. You might also solicit the assistance of a trusted reader for feedback. Your flattering friends serve little use here; if you don't know someone who will give honest, informed criticism, a campus writing center or private tutor may be the better option.
Eighth week: Fine-tune your writing. Here, you are focusing on transitions between paragraphs, sentence structure, word usage, and the like. Your ideas are in place and sound, so now focus on the language itself. And, reserve the last day for proofreading. Your word processor's spelling and grammar checks are not enough; you need to work through every sentence and check spelling, punctuation, and usage. Finish, and get some sleep.
The Four-Week Plan
You still have plenty of time, and can put in most of the steps from the eight-week plan. The main difference is that you need to condense the first five weeks of the previous plan into your first two, and then unfortunately skip the week off. Thus, you should take a week and a half to prepare, followed by a half-week, or maybe a weekend, to churn out your first draft.
After that, I do recommend a couple of days to set the paper aside; you can do your substantive editing from halfway through week three to halfway through week four, and then do your fine-tuning and final proofread in the final three to four days before the paper is due. It is necessarily more efficient, and you can certainly turn in a solid product in this time frame.
The Two-Week Plan
Don't panic. You will have peers who turned in their paper two weeks ago, but while hating those peers may bring brief catharsis, it will not further your need to complete your own work. Instead, focus on how to get to where you need to get. In the first week, then, get a draft done. You may have four days to read and three to write, or a similar breakdown. You need not rush; outline your ideas to get your structure established, then get your ideas written out.
At this point, you have a draft and a week to work with it. You can't afford to take much time away, but you can still allow a half week for substantive editing, and a few more days to fine-tune. You even have time to breathe, eat, and sleep along the way.
The One-Week Plan
Time is no longer your greatest ally. Nonetheless, you can do this. On the first day, if you haven't read the primary text or texts for your assignment, do so. While reading, take notes. From there, make a detailed outline on day two, and draft between days two and three. You can then do substantive editing in day four, and fine-tune and proof in the days remaining. You will feel tired at the end of it, but you can still turn in a good product.
OMG, This Thing Is Due Tomorrow
It's going to be okay. You've read the text, right?
Oh. Pick up the primary text on which you're writing. If it's already evening, get or make some coffee or similarly caffeinated beverage. Try not to use Vivarin, No-Doz, etc.; it will get you through, but you'll hurt for it later. Trust me: I, um, know a guy who did that once.
Develop a preconceived idea of what you want to say. Most professors grade papers on quality of writing (no, don't panic!), and not on the position you take. And if you have one of the rare professors who does not do this, you should already know what position that professor will expect you to take. Draft your thesis statement, knowing you can revise it after you write the rest of your paper.
Once you have the position in mind, skim for supporting points. Use chapter titles, headings, indices, or anything else you can to speed this process along. Lay those points out into a bare-bones outline, noting the pages on which you found them for ease of quotation and citation. You should identify eight to ten points or counterpoints.
Grab the key to your abode, and step outside. Breathe in the night (I'm assuming here) air; it will help clear your head. If it is very cold or raining, so much the better.
Go back inside. Have a little more coffee, and maybe a healthy snack. Sit down, and begin writing. First draft your introduction, funneling down to your thesis. Be careful not to overcompensate with bombast for your lack of preparation. You may do this to some extent in your conclusion, but not in the introduction. You will not have time to fine-tune your language, so you should aim for slow, measured text. Fake it.
From here, develop each of your citation-worthy points into two to three paragraphs of text. Focus on answering the following: 1. What is the point? 2. How does this point play out, in the text and in my mind? 3. Why does this matter, particularly in relation to the thesis? This should get you to the required length, and make your paper read more reasoned than it feels right now.
Next, draft your conclusion. This is an upside down introduction, in that it restates the thesis and then fans out. Let loose a little, but keep yourself tempered enough to sound academic. After that, outline your written paper to make sure the order makes sense. There is likely no time or ability to overhaul at this stage, but you can cut and paste, being careful to massage transitions between paragraphs so it makes sense.
From here, sleep a little if there is time, so you can refresh to some extent. If not, run the spellcheck, and skim for potential errors. Print your final draft, sprint to class, and remember to leave yourself more time next semester.
Not All Plans Are Created Equal
With just about any time frame available, you can create a competent paper. Doing your best work, though, requires at least two weeks to focus on both your ideas and your writing. Good luck, and happy writing!