Starting out on the WordPress journey can be intimidating. It seems like a whole new world with lots of buttons and options. And there’s creative concerns like menus, colors, site navigation, content writing. In order to get the most out of WordPress it’s best to see your work as a series of phases in which you take on greater challenges in sequence.
After you get through these phases—even if it takes you several years—you will know your WordPress judo well.
Beginner Phase—Learn The Bare Bones
Don’t let the many options within WordPress overwhelm you. Remember that WordPress is divided into various sections and options based on goals you can accomplish with your site. Start with a few basic actions.
- Logging into the “Dashboard”
- get familiar with the “back end” of WordPress, where you do a variety of maintenance and creative tasks.
- Create a piece of content
- write a post or page. For many beginner WordPress users, creating a page or post might be as simple as editing the sample content or deleting that content and creating your own.
When you’re just starting out, you may be wondering about the differences between WordPress.com (a hosted WordPress tool) and WordPress.org (the free application you can install on your personal hosting account. If you’re just starting out, you can try a free account on WordPress.com to get comfortable with the base set of tools and workflows that WordPress provides. The above actions can be easily achieved in a free WordPress.com account.
When you’re satisfied that you mastered the basics of WordPress, it’s time to graduate to self-hosting or decide to stay at WordPress.com. There’s nothing wrong with staying on WordPress.com, but it might limit your opportunities for customizing your site down the road. For example, if you want a developer to build you a custom theme you can easily install it on a self-hosted site. But in a WordPress.com environment, you need to pay a higher subscription fee in order to install custom code. That’s just one example of limited customization. You will get more acquainted with custom code as you continue on the WordPress journey.
Remember, you can switch down the road. For example, if you got your start on WordPress.com you can always migrate your site to a self-hosted environment and vice versa. WordPress is very flexible when it comes to various hosting environments.
Installing Themes and Plugins on Self-Hosted
Should you decide to go to with a self-hosted WordPress, your opportunities for installing third-party themes and plugins grow by leaps and bounds. You’re now on your own personal space where you can do anything you want. You have more freedom, but at a price. All of that freedom means you need to be careful about what kinds of third-party tools you’re installing.
Installing themes and plugins is an essential part of the WordPress workflow.
- Themes control the look and feel of your site
- Plugins give extra functionality to your site
However, there is some crossover: themes can add functionality while plugins can add look and feel; so don’t accept these static definitions as immutable. You will get the hang of it as you go along.
Community Phase—Join a WordPress Community
WordPress enjoys a lively and supportive community. In cities all around the world, WordPress users (both beginner and advanced) get together to learn and teach. No matter what phase you’re at in the WordPress journey you will always be learning something new. Rather than something to be dreaded, this constant state of change is something to be treasured because while you’re learning you’ll be creating new and valuable things and meeting all kinds of people.
If you’d rather not meet with users in person, the community is also digital. WordPress support forums let users submit issues and questions. Once you’re a WordPress expert, you should jump into the forums and help your fellow users with questions they have. Chances are if you had a question someone else had the same exact issue and you’ll be able to help them out.
If you live in or near a major city there is likely a WordPress meetup in your area. Meetup.com is a community-building website that lets users create and share meetings and accept invitations. Tech meetups are in almost every major city, and WordPress is one of the most popular. Meetups create a casual environment where rules are set by the group organizers. Your group may get the most value out of giving presentations about common issues or procedures, or they might be open question/answer sessions or all of the above. The best thing to do is join meetup.com and RSVP to the next WordPress meeting. If your city doesn’t have a meetup, you can create one.
WordCamp is the official WordPress conference. Volunteers from all over the world get together annually to put on these WordCamp events in their local cities and for larger conferences like WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe. If you choose to attend a WordCamp you will pay an admission fee but in return you’ll get access to a whole weekend of lectures, presentations, special offers from sponsors (your favorite web host is likely to have a booth), and get free lunch and coffee and pastries. Next year, you might have a topic you’d like to present.
Getting involved in the WordPress community in any form provides a nice way of learning new things and paying it forward.
Theme Phase—Start Coding a Theme
Now that you’ve gotten comfortable with base feature set within WordPress, and you’ve installed themes and plugins and probably built a whole website, it’s time to go deeper into the code that runs WordPress behind the scenes.
As you probably remember from the self-hosted WordPress installation, WordPress is basically a set of core files (mostly PHP) that combine to create the dynamic webpages on both back end (Dashboard) and front end (the public-facing website). It’s time to start learning how all these files work together. The best way to do that is by creating a custom theme.
Theme coding lets you take full control of the WordPress application itself. The theme files give you granular control of the look and feel of the site and, as needed, add core functionality to the Dashboard as well. Theme coding is incredibly powerful as it lets you build virtually any kind of site that you can imagine.
Before jumping into theme coding, however, you should have a working knowledge of the following markup and scripting languages:
By working knowledge, I mean you should be able to read the WordPress documentation and be able to reproduce the results of what you read in these languages using the available examples, functions, arguments and parameters. Working knowledge doesn’t mean you need to have every function and method memorized, but you should be able to know where to reference those items as needed. These are some good resources to bookmark:
WordPress themes are based on “template” files that use proprietary functions to generate page content. For example, your website’s header is controlled by a special function called
Plugin Phase—Make a Plugin
Now you’re cooking with boiling oil. You are officially a WordPress expert.
- You’re intimately acquainted with the WordPress interface
- You have leveraged WordPress core functionality to generate a desired layout in a custom theme
Now, you might be wondering, why should I need to build a plugin when I can add functions via themes? You may already know that there will be circumstances in which you will want custom functionality without demanding a change of themes. This is where plugin architecture really shines.
Creating a plugin is as simple as creating a directory and adding php files to it. With a little bit of WordPress boilerplate code added to the main php file, you can now build new functionality into any WordPress site without changing themes. This is the magic of a WordPress plugin.
In order to get started with plugins, you should start with the official WordPress plugin handbook.
Master Phase—Contribute to Core
Here is the final phase, beyond which mastery awaits. You have gone through the entire WordPress core, starting with the user interface, to the community, to the theme and plugin architecture to finally arrive at contribution. In order to achieve master status, you must use your knowledge of the WordPress core to analyze and improve the core itself and contribute your fixes. As WordPress grows over the years, the need for improvement and updates will be ongoing. Maybe you will:
- Improve security
- Augment the Gutenberg editor
- Increase support for multisite configurations
- Optimize database structure
Once your contributions have been accepted into core, it’s safe to say you are a WordPress master. But this is not the end of the journey; keep learning, keep sharing and contributing.