Once largely the domain of political activists who set up booths outside grocery stores to ask passers-by to add their signatures, petitions have become one of the most widespread tools to raise awareness and make demands in the modern digital world.
Many people, both those considering writing a petition and those thinking about signing one, ask whether petitions can “actually change anything”. The simple answer to that question is “sometimes, yes” — and crafting a clear, strong, and beautifully-written petition is one of the most important steps to take to get your message across.
How do you do write a well-worded petition that convinces those who support your message to sign, and those on the receiving end of your request to think about making the changes you’re hoping for?
Understanding a Petition
A petition is, in this context, a written document that formally appeals to any organization or individual to implement specific changes, and that is signed by a larger group of people. These signatories make it known that they agree with the demands made in the petition. A petition can collectively be drafted by a group of people (loosely affiliated, one organization, or a group of organizations), or it can be penned by one individual.
The word “petition” likely arises from the old French peticiun, which itself began with the Latin petere, which means to seek or to require. The root of this word also means “to rush”, which seems to be appropriate — by writing a petition and taking action to gather as many signatures as possible, you essentially seek the recipient to be prompt in making changes.
Petitions are often addressed to:
- Politicians or governmental bodies, such as mayors, aldermen, ministers, presidents, or prime ministers.
- Businesses, which can range from huge corporations to small local companies.
- Academic institutions such as colleges, school boards, or even public libraries.
- Media organizations, such as newspapers or magazines.
Petitions can have multiple distinct goals. They can exist with the aim of getting a specific set of demands met, or may have the more modest goal of placing the issue that is discussed within the petition on the recipient’s radar — in the hope that it will make a difference in the desired direction. Petitions may also, as a secondary purpose, have the aim of raising awareness of a problem among members of the general public. Once this awareness exists, the authors may hope, increasing numbers of people could take their own steps to create a particular form of change.
As such, petitions can be said to be an important part of the democratic process, as they allow citizens and pressure groups to interact directly with governmental bodies and other influential organizations or individuals.
Examples of Common Petition Topics
Petitions are commonly hosted on dedicated websites such as Change.org and gopetition.com in today’s world, and they are no longer always as serious in nature as was historically the case. As this guide is being penned, petitions are ongoing about every possible topic. To help you see in which arenas people are currently using petitions as a means to create change and raise awareness, let’s take a look at some of the requests and demands others have already made.
Petitions can be used to:
- Call for systemic and policy changes in the political realm — including calls for or against economic sanctions, calls for peace, calls for a certain practice to be decriminalized or legalized, or (indeed quite popular) calls for daylight savings time to be abolished.
- Intervene in individual cases — such as requests for pardon or clemency of inmates or requests for patients with serious diseases to be offered funding for their treatment.
- Call for certain projects to be funded, such as better lighting in a public park, the addition of a public pool in a neighborhood, or (on a much more local level) a petition for a school to fund a field trip.
- Call for changes within sporting organizations or sports, such as the addition of safety rules.
- Demand change from private companies — for example, social media platforms have been asked to take steps to prevent bullying or to ban certain types of content, or companies may be asked to introduce paper straws.
- Call on individuals such as CEOs or politicians to resign from their posts after being found to do something that calls their integrity into question.
That is not all, though — indeed, if the next season of your favorite TV show has just been canceled, or you absolutely want that ice cream company you love to add a peanut butter and mint flavor to their assortment, there is absolutely no reason you cannot start a petition about this, too.
What Elements Should All Petitions Contain?
All effective petitions contain three basic elements:
- The first portion of the petition describes the problem. (“School uniforms are outdated and should be gender-neutral”, “Planes flying over Middletown keep residents awake all night”, “Social media is full of bullies”.)
- The second portion describes the proposed solution and desire to make the problem stop. (To continue with the school uniform example, for instance, “We propose that students of any gender can wear any version of the uniform”, “It is high time that school uniforms be abolished”, or whatever solution you are seeking.)
- The final portion of the petition makes a call to action — this is what you and anyone who signs the petition believe the organization or person you are petitioning should do in response to receiving the petition. (If we were to take the school uniform example to its conclusion, the call to action may be a request that the school board urgently meets to vote on the proposed policy change.)
- In some cases, it may be desirable to follow the call to action up with an ultimatum. Unless the proposed changes are made, for instance, the signatories will boycott a company that fails to meet the demands, and campaign for others to begin doing the same. In the case of the school uniforms, students may threaten a school strike.
How Should You Format Your Petition?
Until not too long ago, petitions were formal documents that followed a rather rigid structure — and the business-like wording used in petitions helped petition writers to ensure that they would be taken seriously by the recipient. The modern digital world, in which most petitions now unfold, has began to change this.
In some cases, petition writers will want to stick to the “old”, tried and trusted, format by crafting a formal polemic. However, using archaic structures and wording is not always the best choice in the modern world.
The tone and format you choose for your petition should depend on three things.
- First, take the recipient into account. Petitioning a government organization should generally lead you to choose more formal wording as compared to petitioning your favorite novel author to finally write that sequel, for instance.
- Consider your supporters, as well — what kind of language would resonate with those you are hoping will sign your petition? The more signatories you can collect, the higher the odds that your petition will catch the recipient’s attention or be mentioned in the media, so this, too, is very important.
- Your own personality. You’re writing the petition; you get to decide how to word it. If you are part of a group of people collectively penning a petition, you will need to agree on the wording and tone.
We have seen popular petitions using extremely formal wording, as well as those that represent the polar opposite — think “So while I was hiking this morning, I noticed multiple injured hedgehogs on the road. This is not OK. Sign this if you want the municipality to fund a hedgehog tunnel to keep these wonderful animals cross the road safely. Peace!”.
Both options can work. Should you, however, decide to opt to write a formal petition, it can be formatted similarly to a business letter. You could use the following template.
[Petition Title — Choose a short title that gets straight to the point; such as “Release Nelson Mandela from Prison Immediately”.]
[The name and letterhead of the organization or organizations who initiated the petition, where relevant. If you are organizing a petition as an individual, you can use your own name here. Follow this with a postal address where you can be reached.]
[Recipient’s name and address.]
[The date on which the petition was sent to the recipient.]
[A traditional salutation, such as “Dear Mr Webber,”]
[The first paragraph, or several where needed, should outline the problem as the authors of the petition see it.]
[The second section should detail why you are petitioning the recipient and what solution or change you expect to see as a result of the petition.]
[Make clear demands, your call to action, before closing the letter.]
[Sign the letter, beginning with your own name or the name of the organization that initiated the petition, and followed by all the signatories.]
Was that too abstract for you? Here’s a look at how the template can be put to use — and because we aim to equip anyone, regardless of their views, with the tools they need to craft an effective petition, we will use a silly example that will not offend anyone:
As a ‘Pet Friendly’ Establishment, Coffee & Cakes Should Welcome All Pets
Arachnid Society of California
23 Spider Street
Sampletown, CA 93207
Coffee & Cakes
CEO Charlotte Ryder
45 Coffee Street
Sampletown, CA 93207
March 21, 2022
Dear Ms Charlotte Ryder,
All five Coffee & Cakes stores proudly declare themselves to be “pet-friendly”, a fact that pet guardians welcome with delight. Unfortunately, it would seem that Coffee & Cakes is not entirely aware of the meaning of the word “pet” — while we can attest to the fact that your chain warmly invites dogs, we have recently discovered that other pets are not treated with the same kindness. Coffee & Cakes has systematically asked customers visiting their stores with Giant Six-Foot-Long Tarantulas to leave.
We would like to point out that spiders are pets, too, and that Coffee & Cakes’ refusal to welcome spiders to their stores amounts to a violation of the store’s own policy. We petition you to immediately clarify that your “pet-friendly” policy pertains to all pets, and not only dogs. We would additionally like to invite you to apologize for your lack of hospitality toward members of the Arachnid Society of California and all our eight-legged friends.
How to Write a Petition: A Step-by-Step Guide
Should you recently have identified a problem that you strongly feel the need to get involved in solving, it may occur to you that writing a petition could play a role in making the outcome you would like to see come about. Some people will already know precisely who is responsible for making the changes in question, while others will not. The process of writing an effective petition — one that has a chance of succeeding, defined as contributing to realizing the desired outcome — should ideally be a methodical effort.
This guide contains all the steps you may need to take to craft an effective petition; you may already have taken some of these steps.
1. Research the Topic In-Depth
Should a problem recently have come to your attention, you may not yourself be familiar with all it entails. Before you can write an effective petition, you will want to familiarize yourself with the history of the problem. You will want to be able to back your viewpoint up with clear evidence. You will want to understand opposing viewpoints as well as steps that may have been taken in the past in an attempt to correct the problem. Familiarize yourself with barriers to solving the problem, or reasons why some may not consider it a problem a tall, as well.
2. Identify Who Is Authorized to Bring About the Change You Desire
You can, thanks to the internet, shout your concerns into the ether (or cyberspace, as the case may be). If you want to bring about change rather than merely raising awareness, however, your petition needs a recipient. That should be the person or organization in a position to bring about the change you seek.
To name some examples, it is by definition ineffective to ask the US government to free a person you believe to have been falsely imprisoned in another country — in this case, you can either petition the foreign government directly, or ask the US President to intervene on that person’s behalf. Addressing a petition for a fast food chain to immediately stop using any single-use plastics to a local franchise is also ineffective; the organization likely has a chief environmental officer or similar position, and your petition should be addressed to that person instead.
3. Write the Body of Your Petition
Your petition simultaneously serves two purposes. In choosing your wording, you should seek to convince others that signing your petition is a worthy cause, as well as making your request or demands clear to the recipient. As people sign the petition you put out into the world, and not any other version thereof, you will not be able to edit the text later.
Be as brief as you can as you write your petition — this will help potential signatories stay on task as they decide whether to sign — but also be clear in the specific action you are seeking. In general, you should aim to keep the total body of your petition to 300 words or less.
If you are crafting a petition on your own, you can complete this process by yourself. Should you be writing it with a grout of people, however, you will want to have a meeting to discuss proposed edits and establish a clear voting process to ensure you can agree on the wording of the petition in a timely manner.
Even if you are solely responsible for writing the petition, always ask others to edit and proofread the text to ensure that it is clear and free from errors.
4. Decide Where to Promote the Petition
Platforms designed especially to host petitions are now the most common way to publish a petition. This can be a good choice, but remember to promote your petition on social media, among groups of people who are likely to support your cause, too. Should you be seeking change in your local context, canvassing your neighborhood by knocking on doors or setting up a booth in a public area can still be worth it; but before you do so, check whether you need a permit to collect signatures in this way.
Mistakes to Avoid as You Write a Petition
When you write a petition:
- Do not make your demands so general that you will not know whether they have been met; ask for a specific action to be taken.
- Do not be so specific that few people will feel able to sign the petition, either — if you are writing a petition “on behalf of Sampletown High School students”, for instance, supporters who do not fit into that category will not be able to sign.
- Using informal wording is a valid choice in today’s world, but never be insulting.
- Ensure that you address the petition to the correct person or organization, because to the contrary you will not be able to bring about change.