This advice applies mostly to non-fiction books. Fiction writers – keep writing. Non-fiction writers, listen up: do not – I repeat, do NOT – write your entire book before you write your proposal. Here’s why.

I know it doesn’t make sense. I know it’s counter-intuitive. I know it seems like the publishing industry is a little nuts (maybe it is).  But there’s a good reason to not write your entire non-fiction book before you write your proposal. Trust me.

Let me tell you a story.

I have a dear and talented friend who has lived a very colorful life. Anyone would be delighted to publish her memoir. At 19, she married an older man just to escape her crazy family and became a step-mother before she was 20.

She escaped the marriage eight years later and ran off to Europe to go to cooking school. As a personal chef, she traveled around the world getting into adventures of all kinds, some dangerous and some hilarious. As you can imagine, she had a whole cast of characters coming and going in her life.

Sounds like a great read, right?

It would be, except now, four years after she started, she is still writing the book. She’s written over 100,000 words! But, not all those words are in the right order, and not all the scenes and chapters build a dynamic book that a publisher will want to buy. And you can imagine how daunting it feels to her to have to revise 100,000 words.

This is a fine exercise if you just want the satisfaction of getting you story down on paper. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you want a book deal, you need to work differently. If you want more people than your closest friends to read your book (and they likely already know your story), you need to approach your material – and the business of writing and selling a book – from a different angle.

What would I recommend to my friend – and what would I recommend for you?

Sure, write a chapter or two. Enjoy the process of diving into your story. Then stop. Do some meta-level thinking. Pull back and see your book from a bird’s-eye-view. Become like a painter who steps back from her easel. She wants to see where she’s come from and to ponder where she’s going.

Before writing more, draft your table of contents. Where does your story start, where does it go, and where does it end? What did you not know at the beginning of your journey/book? What have you learned by the end?

Show your material to trusted friends and ask for their frank feedback. Listen to their questions. Where do they get stuck? What do they want to know? What did they love? What confused them? Address all of these concerns at the table of contents stage.

Instead of writing more chapters, draft an annotated table of contents. That means writing a paragraph of notes under each chapter title that describes what unfolds in each chapter.

Now, can you find a title for your book?

From this meta-level thinking you can start to draft your book proposal. You can think about who it’s for. You can think about what books out there are most like yours. You can think about how you plan to reach your readers.

And in the process of drafting your proposal you will refine your book.

Let me repeat – because this is the essential point. In the process of writing your book proposal, you will refine the book you want to write. You will chop scenes and points you thought you needed. You will focus the material. In essence, you will write a better book. You will write a book that your readers are hungry for, and that any agent and editor will be happy to sell.

In the world of book publishing, working smart like this is key.