These days, every non-fiction author needs a book proposal. It’s great to have one when you’re looking for an agent, and it’s essential when you’re approaching editors and publishers. If you’re a first-time author, having an excellent proposal is key.

Even some fiction writers today need to have a book proposal. This wasn’t true in the past, when fiction writers were simply expected to submit their finished manuscript.

Why this change? Because publishers want to know that authors understand their audience and their market. This translates into sales – and sales benefit everyone.

Here are the top five mistakes to avoid when you’re crafting your book proposal.

1. Understand that you need a proposal.

This first item is where authors can have a lot of resistance. It’s a matter of not knowing the publishing business. When you don’t know how things work, you may wonder if you really need a proposal. You might think, Can’t I get by without one? My project is a book after all, not a proposal.

I really understand this question, but it’s not how the biz works. Only in very rare circumstances would an author be able to sell a book without a proposal. Take note of those two words above: very rare. Meaning: it’s probably not true for you.

If you’re writing non-fiction, and especially if you are a first-time author, you need a book proposal. If you want a publishing contract, learn to speak the language of the publishing biz. At least a little.

A book proposal is your entree into this world.

2. Complete all sections of the book proposal.

It’s tempting to think that some sections of the book proposal are optional. You may not love each part of the proposal – that’s normal. But you need all of them.

The only exception might be if your agent tells you otherwise or if she says she’s going to write some sections for you. But that’s unusual.

Otherwise stick to the formula and do a great job on every section – even if you’d prefer to skip some sections.

3. Take the the time to develop your book idea.

This point may bring up the question: How can I express my book idea well if I haven’t yet written the book?  Fair enough. Maybe you need to spend some time writing your book before you attempt the book proposal. That might be a more organic process for you. (Although, warning! Don’t spend all your time and energy perfecting your book before you draft a proposal.)

One thing is for certain: Not taking the time to develop the idea of your book will result in a crappy proposal. By crappy I mean any of these things: chaotic, hard to understand, disorganized, scattered, and so on. Anything that gives the impression that the writer does not understand what her book is about.

Agents and publishers want something they can sell. They want to deliver a great read to people who are hungry for the story or the information that you are ready to share.

If you’re not clear on your idea, no one else will be either. Even worse, a badly formed idea might mark you as someone who can’t deliver.

4. Sharpen up your prose.

By this I mean two thing: develop the writing so that it’s truly the best you can produce at the chapter, paragraph and sentence level (or hire someone to help you clean it up). I also mean clean up your writing so that it’s free of typos and other errors that are easily fixed. Make sure you look sharp when you go out into the world. It’s like putting on your good clothes for an important meeting. You would check your reflection or ask someone for feedback, right? Do the same thing with your writing so that others will take you seriously.

5. Get a second opinion on your proposal.

Before you start shopping it around, make sure someone else has read your entire proposal and given you feedback.

Let’s face it you are going to get rejections. But you can reduce the number of rejections (or the deafening silence of no responses at all) by making sure your proposal really works before you start sending it around to agents and editors.

You can get feedback from friends and from professionals in the industry. People who are used to writing business proposals might also be able to offer helpful insights.