Learning how to start a petition is valuable for a neighborhood or community activist, even if you're only new in that role today! Seriously, it's easy. We'll walk you through it.
Petition writing isn't time-consuming or especially demanding. But there are a few do's and don'ts that will make your petition drive more effective and impactful to its recipients.
When you consider how to start a petition, don't be too creative. Stay with a format that decision makers will recognize instantly.
Start your petition writing with the words "We the undersigned…" Then ideally you can complete the sentence with your main point in five to ten words. For example, you might write "We the undersigned oppose the zoning proposal of ABC Corporation at 123 Main Street."
In reviewing our site, we noticed that some people were searching for information on writing a legal petition. If you're creating something that has to conform to legal rules, consult an authority related to your specific purpose, usually an attorney. On this site we're confining ourselves to petitions that are intended to influence but not to force a particular chain of events to occur.
Below we'll give you some ground rules for what to say after your opening sentence, or more than one sentence if you are bringing up a complex topic that is not on the immediate agenda of the board of selectmen, city council, or other group you are petitioning.
1. Explain your topic just as briefly as possible. Remember that you have two audiences for a petition: (a) a prospective signer, and (b) a busy distracted decision maker. If the item is already in the public eye, simply state which side of the fence you prefer or what process you request.
2. If you are opposing or supporting a current agenda item (whether on a formal written agenda or not), after you have stated your position, list your three or four best arguments, again in the briefest language possible.
You may gather fewer signatures if people feel they are being asked to sign something they don't want to take time to read.
Elected officials, especially those who already have taken an opposite stance, don't need a long argument at the beginning of a petition. For the receiving officials, it's all about who signed or didn't sign!
3. After this, simply place blanks on the page for name and address of signers. If you wish, you can have people both sign and print their names. It's amazing how illegible some signatures are.
Of course, if you're following a legal petition process, include any information required by law for the petition to be valid (examples would be mailing address, precinct number, and so forth), and make sure that those who sign include all data needed.
Sign your own name first; people don't like to be first to sign.
4. Make your arguments as rational and reasonable as possible. If your purpose is to make an emotional plea, make a video instead. A petition is by nature a formal-looking document, so keep it responsible-sounding and business-like or try a different tactic.
5. Keep it short. Didn't we say that before? Three paragraphs is a long petition preamble. One good paragraph is a better example of how to start a petition, unless you're trying to bring a new topic to public light.
Let's add another reason to remain brief—the more you say, the more likely you are to alienate a potential signer or decision maker.
6. Slant the wording toward the interests of the person or persons who will be receiving the petition. If you are students wondering about how to start a petition to the principal, think like a principal for a minute.
If you are a neighborhood and you want the city council to give you more money for your community project, what would convince you if you were a member of that council?
1. Give a complete history of the issue, unless you feel that's essential for decision makers to understand. If you're merely trying to educate possible signers, do it verbally.
2. Use inflammatory, exaggerated, all-or-nothing language. Statements about everyone knowing something or everybody voting against the incumbents if they don't do what you want will only raise defenses. Name calling, abusive language, and overly emotional pleas don't inspire respect for your position.
3. Make threats. The petition should show solidarity in the community or neighborhood, but it's not the place to explain the consequences of bad behavior to the people on whose vote you depend.
4. Divide your pool of potential signers by being unnecessarily specific. For example, if your group wishes to oppose a rezoning, but there are two or more reasons floating around, don’t unnecessarily limit your pool of signers by including only one reason. Simply include both as arguments.
Learning how to start a petition is much simpler than when you learned how to write a research paper. All you need to do is condense your wording so that you include the major ideas but don’t necessarily support them with statistics and data.
Remember that your purpose in petition writing is either to demonstrate that you have an impressive number of people behind you or to raise a new issue.
Clear, direct, respectful language expressing your main idea in one paragraph, or up to three paragraphs if you are raising a brand new issue, is how to start a petition. You can do it.
To circulate your new masterpiece, I recommend that you find reliable people to hand carry it around the neighborhood. If you have a block captain system, use it.
Print a few copies and have an appropriate number of people start the petition, rather than trying to have one person catch up with everyone. Decision makers will overlook blank lines at the end of unfilled petition forms.