Industry experts agree that the most common reasons why b-plans head straight for the shredder are because of the small things that give it away as an amateur production: unrealistic claims about competition or risk, spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, content and formatting errors, incomplete or vague information, and so on.
Considering that your business plan is the first ever impression of your business, a sloppy piece of work is not going to be read through seriously - especially if its being read by angels and VCs who have to choose among several businesses vying for their attention.
Most plans are divided into standard sections to discuss the business proposition, the management, the market and unique strategies for marketing and operations. The most critical information should be presented upfront rather than buried deep inside the pages, and sections should be well-balanced and inter-related.
Having said that, there is no fixed format for a business plan - sections are put together depending on their relevance to who is going to be reading the plan. For example, a plan for investors is quite different from one put together for internal purposes only.
Presentation is key so that the content is not unnecessarily complex or overly simplified - the plan should be easy to read and build up excitement from logical reasoning and facts (not hot air). Along the way, a clearly emergent SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) should become evident.
The executive summary at the beginning can make it or break it, so it needs to receive as much attention. Together with the investor presentation, it should do a nice job of summing up your entire plan so even though it is the first chapter, it should be written last.
Financial projections that can be supported by actual market facts and data will make sure the nuts and bolts are in place since a lot of investors might read nothing more than the executive summary and the financial projections (though all the other sections need to be there for reference and due diligence once your business is short-listed).
No matter what level you are at, a proper business plan is ideally never written by one person alone - there are bound to be some gaping holes you somehow overlooked in all your excitement.
Business plan software and templates give you some broad areas to discuss, but you should spend your time on more focused responses. Rather than 'filling in' sections using a hammer and chisel, try to find answers to specific questions your potential investors will be asking you.
Business consulting firms are usually far more useful than software or templates that are one-size-fits-all, and can help you write a solid plan that gets results.
If you can come up with good answers to questions the consultants put forward, you do not have to worry about the presentation, since the documentation of your responses (with added value) is the responsibility of the consulting firm. The Q&A sessions will also help you build confidence when you actually talk to investors.
Services provided typically include writing, market research, financial modelling, proof-reading, editing and review. For a slightly larger budget, a serious firm will even provide consulting to develop your business strategy. However, you should make sure the consultant works closely with you so that the end result is no less than what you bargained for.
In case you are not in for the additional investment for acquiring these services, make sure your plan receives a good sanity check from your cohorts and is looked over with a critical eye by at least one person external to your business. And don't forget to spell-check and watch your grammar.