How to Start a Petition That Will Make the Right Impact

Learning how to start a petition is valuable for a neighborhood or community activist, even if you're 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 have more impact on 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."

If your drive is primarily the project of one well-respected organization, it is all right to include that fact.  For example you might start with, "We the undersigned members and friends of the West Side Neighborhood Association respectfully request that..."





A title for your petition is optional.  If you write one, keep it very brief.  If you can't think of what to write, don't worry about it.  But on each page, repeat either the title, the first paragraph, or a phrase about the subject matter.

Many people arriving at this site were searching for information on writing a legal petition. In addition to following these tips, if you are creating a petition that has to conform to legal rules, be very clear on the pertinent law.  If need be, consult an attorney. On this site we are concentrating on drives that are intended to influence, but not to force a particular chain of events to occur.

Below are some ground rules for what to say after your opening 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, understand that several sentences may be needed to express your point of view.


Tips for How to Start a Petition

DO:

1. Explain your topic and point of view 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 will 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 or appreciate 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 the name and address of each signer. Be sure to number each line; one of the main points of a successful petition drive is the number of valid signatures collected.  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. Many petitions require a check mark for whether the person is a registered voter.

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.  If you can't, try a different tactic.

5. Keep it short. Didn't we say that before? One good paragraph is the best advice on how to start a petition, unless you're trying to bring a new topic to public light.  Anything more than three paragraphs is too long, even if you are raising a brand new issue.

Let's add another reason to remain brief—the more you say, the more likely you are to irritate a potential signer or decision maker with a minor point.

6. Slant the wording to appeal to 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?

7. Consider an impactful order of the signatures, especially in a smaller town.  Sign your own name first, since people don't like to be the first to sign.  After that, though, if you expect to have signatures from people who are influential with your target audience signing your petition, see if you can arrange to have their signatures near the top.  Elected officials are busy people too, so they may not read every single signature.  They will look at the number of total signatures, but in smaller places, they will be affected by who signed, as well as how many.





DON'T:

1. Give a complete history of the issue, unless you feel that's essential for decision makers to understand your point. If you feel you need to write a lot to educate possible signers, think about whether it is possible to teach your points verbally. If you will be intercepting shoppers or people on a sidewalk though, you may want to think through whether a petition is really the right tactic if your issue will require extensive explanation in order to obtain a signature.

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. Limit your pool of potential signers by being too 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, unless a particular point is controversial with your possible signers.


Summary of Petition Writing

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 describe the major point. Usually there is no need to  support it with statistics and data, although one startling fact can be effective.

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. It may be tempting to use high school students or some other ready pool of labor, but consider whether your carriers can react appropriately to challenges and questions.

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. In fact, the implication that you had several or many people willing to circulate this document may be impressive in itself.

Give each person distributing the petition a deadline for returning it, and make sure directions for returning it are clear and easy.  Don't let petitions straggle in the evening of the meeting for two good reasons:  (1) If you do, you risk appearing disorganized, which is the opposite of the impression you are trying to create, and (2) Last-minute or on-the-spot collection of all the petitions means you will not have time to cross out any duplicates or unqualified signers that you see.  Taking care to present only a list of appropriate signatures will help give your cause credibility.

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Typical Reasons for Action:
the word no on a black background
Re-Zoning Opposition

neighborhood meeting
Neighborhood Advocacy

dog face
Off-Leash Dog Park

street lighting
Street Lighting

house needing major repairs
Abandoned Buildings