Building a better WordPress for Writers

WordPress is the de-facto standard for writers who want to set up a website to publicise their work. It’s such an important part of the eco-system for writers that I use it even though I run a business that has its own content management platform!

Despite this, I don’t think WordPress offers a great experience for the average non-technical writer. Whether you are joining the self-publishing revolution or courting publication with a mainstream publisher, the “gurus” will all say the same thing to you.

Platform, platform, platform…

Listening to a talk recently, I heard an agent explain that the first thing they now did when reviewing a manuscript was to Google the Author. They wanted to see what their website was like and whether or not they were active on social media.

The bottom line was that an author that was already proactively marketing themselves and who had a provable, measurable audience was a much easier sell to the publishers than an author who was a total unknown.

It’s a daunting realisation, but I doubt that this agent was alone in taking this approach.

The bottom line? Having a website isn’t enough, you have to have  GOOD website.

Finding the Perfect WordPress Theme

As part of my #yearofbrandingdangerously I’d made a conscious decision to use WordPress not only because it’s a pretty good platform but also because I wanted to be able to share anything that I learnt with other authors. I’m maybe shooting myself in the foot but a series of articles about how I carved out my online brand using a piece of software over which I had total control and could have bespoked to my every need and whim seemed somehow less compelling than sharing tips and advice on how you can replicate my (hopeful) success with tools that are readily and freely available.

So, WordPress. Rightly or wrongly the first thing that I did was go looking for a theme.

As a writer I wanted something minimal. As a digital marketer I wanted something that I could control and ensure that I had clear calls to action for visitors.

Herein, I was suprised to find, was the rub.

Is there such a thing as a Minimal and Highly Configurable Theme for WordPress?

Eschewing commercial themes (everything has to replicable using free software) I spent the best part of three days looking for a theme for my website. I tried magazine themes. I tried minimal themes. I tried business themes. I tried themes that were specifically for writers, authors, novelists, and one that had zombies and blood splatter on it…

#disappointment

Nothing was a fit. There just didn’t seem to be a WordPress theme that had

  1. A minimal, typography first design
  2. Plenty of widget areas for me to configure
  3. Support for post-formats
  4. A decent mobile menu and mobile render
  5. Have all features available without subscription or payment

There are lots of themes that hit some of these. An honourable mention should go to Writee that, except for a broken mobile menu implementation was very close to being my new theme.

A word on WordPress Themes and “The old Bait and Switch”

There was a disappointing number of themes that probably could have given me everything I want, but kept their best features hidden behind “premium” subscriptions. I don’t have a problem with commercial software, even when its built on an Open Source platform, but the “bait and switch” approach that many vendors take is very irritating.

Bait and Switch: Offering a product that appears premium but that comes with hidden limitations that incur hidden costs to remove or avoid

“Freemium” software, to my mind, needs to offer all of its functionality at all levels and be limited by scale. There are too many “crippleware” themes at the moment and I dread to think of how much time I spent installing and testing themes only to discover that the demo and the reality are very far apart.

If you want a job done right…

So, enough moaning… right? After all, here you are on my WordPress site and hopefully its working well and looking pretty good. It’s minimal, but functional and very configurable – because I made it that way.

My deep-delve into the world of WordPress themes revealed a burgeoning new type of “starter” theme, lead by the _s “Underscores” theme from Automattic themselves, that allow you to kick start the creation of a theme with a minimal skeleton. It’s not an approach for everyone – you need to understand PHP, HTML, CSS, JQuery, and a bunch of other stuff. Lucky for me I do – but not every author does. In fact, I expect it’s going to be a very small number of you.

So, right now, I’m building my own theme and, when it’s done, I’ll be sharing it on WordPress.org.

I’m aiming to create the perfect theme for any writer –

  1. Minimal, typography focussed
  2. Plenty of widget areas so you can use plenty of widgets
  3. Support for post-formats
  4. A decent mobile menu and mobile render
  5. Have all features available without subscription or payment

You’re looking at this theme right now but, as I write this, I’ve yet to release the code on WordPress.org. I’ve a little way to go and a few more things to do before that happens but (hopefully) it won’t be long.

For my fellow Nerds

The current incarnation of these theme is a child theme of _tk. _tk itself is a fork of _s with Bootstrap added in. I like Bootstrap a lot and so this has been a very shallow learning curve for me. I will probably eventually fork _s myself as it has a very clean codebase and this would give me some deeper control.

If you want a job done right for you…

What would make the perfect WordPress theme for you as a writer? Do you agree with my list?