Your Author Website: Choosing a Good WordPress Theme

Big fan of WordPress. I use it for all my sites and for Spinhead’s clients’ sites as well. As a writer you’ll note the correct use of apostrophes in that sentence. (See below for the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org and trust me, you want to know this.)

Choosing a theme seems to be a massive roadblock to beginners.

Let’s blow that up and shovel it into the ditch, eh?

What is a WordPress Theme?

The term is used too loosely, leading to confusion. Originally, WordPress themes were purely a “look and feel” overlay, changing nothing but appearance.

Over time, developers started adding new functions in their themes.

Note well this difference: appearance vs. function. It is the core of good webbiness, grokking that right there.

In the bad old days of the 90s we’d put the data and the appearance and the functionality all in one bucket. Changing one sometimes broke others.

Eventually we got cool stuff like databases that worked on the web and “style sheets” (CSS) that only affected how things looked, not what they did.

And that, dear reader, is what I still believe a WordPress theme should be: appearance, not function.

If a WordPress theme promises to “make things easy” or includes “drag and drop” anything I strongly urge you to reconsider. Even with my 20+ years of web experience (and 30+ years of database experience and 40+ years of computer experience) every new “easy-to-use DIY” interface is one more learning experience. Learning from scratch experience.

That easy-to-use DIY theme will not teach you how to use WordPress, nor will it teach you how to code a website or use a database, in case those were your goals. (Don’t learn those things unless you plan to make a living at it. Learning something you’ll use precisely once is a waste of time.)

Learning to use that DIY theme will only teach you how to use that DIY theme.

Change themes, and you have to start all over from scratch.

These themes shouldn’t be called “themes” they should be called “interfaces.”

And I recommend against them for beginners (vehemently) and anyone who’s not planning on becoming a WordPress developer (strongly.)

Choose a theme which is purely presentational, one which does nothing but change the way your WordPress site looks, the colors, fonts, position of stuff on the page.

Then learn how to use WordPress properly, and should you ever decide to change themes, your learning “curve” flatlines because you’re already up to speed.

Examples?

Your first stop should be Automattic, the folks who make WordPress. Hey, if you’re buying a mouse for your Mac, who’s most likely to get it perfectly right, Apple, or Bob’s ‘Of Mice and Lawn Mower Repair’?

As of this writing they have over 80 free themes, coded so you know you’re not getting junk. I did not verify that these are all purely presentational, but my guess is that the folks at Automattic, geeks that they are, think like me, so it’s a good bet.

If you can’t find something you like in those 80+ themes may I suggest you’re too particular for a homemade site, and should hire someone?

Semi-DIY

For the more adventurous, and I don’t mean dabblers I mean closet geeks, you might noodle around with a framework called _s (say “underscores”).

It is a bare naked theme, intended for you to go into the CSS and PHP and make it your own.

Yeah, if that sentence makes you say “What?” don’t do it. If it puts a little glint in your eye to think of all those TLAs at your command, give it a shot. Just not on your live WordPress site. Before you do anything with it _s is ugly.

(This site and my fiction site are both based on _s and are only lightly modified. You can do much more with it if you care to.)

(TLA is the three-letter acronym for three letter acronym)

If this hasn’t answered every single question you have about choosing a WordPress theme, throw all the questions you can muster into that comment form below. I promise to answer every single one.

Back to the top
WordPress.com is where you can set up a free blog/site hosted by them. You cannot use it for business purposes; that is, you can’t actually sell from there. It has limitations. But it’s wholly free.

WordPress.org is where you can download your own copy and install it on hosting you pay for. As always, I recommend the most personal and caring hosting on the web, Charlottezweb. When you own your own copy of WordPress (free to download, you pay only for your website hosting) you can do whatever you want with it. This is my method.

13 thoughts on “Your Author Website: Choosing a Good WordPress Theme

  1. I started off with a theme (WordPress in origin) that was of the quick and easy variety to get going, but it was dark (dark colors, black background, white font, red links). So I found a lighter theme and flipped things around. I dig the lighter theme but I found that since switching when I include an image in my post, when it goes to facebook, the image that comes across is from the logo, not the image I inserted. I’m not sure if this is due to the theme switch, but I have yet to find the whoseywhatsit setting to make it show the image in the blog instead of the website. You don’t ever see the image from the blog unless you click to read more of the post. Thoughts?

  2. 1. Facebook is notoriously quirky about getting related images right. Sometimes, it’s them. And once they associate an image with a post, they almost never relent no matter how much you change the featured image or inline images. Facebook is unforgiving.
    2. Some themes will automatically display the “featured image” whether you put it in the post or not. I always manually insert images where I want them (and always before the “read more” link) and also set the image as the featured image. That way, the image in the post is visible in the widest range of places, because some social media outlets grab content images and some grab featured, and some do whatever they like based on the phase of the moon (see #1.)

    1. And so, like, could be the theme and perhaps it needs tweaking or changing. You’re using a dead simple theme, so not hard to find one on the Automattic page to use.

      Or, for you, Geek Padawan that you are, _s might be a good choice. I could send you the version I’ve modified for this site (and for http://joeldcanfield.com/ and http://chiefvirtualofficer.com/) and you’d only have a half-dozen changes in the stylesheet to make it whatever you want.

      1. Ok, so that’s good to know. I think it is issue #1 because I have seen fb post the embedded image the way I want it like once since changing themes, then the next post it went back to doing what it wanted. I considered flipping back to my old theme just to see if that did anything new an exciting, but just haven’t done it yet. I’ve fiddled in my existing theme’s CSS to see if I could monkey with settings there, but the CSS within the pre-built theme from WP is not intuitive (not to me at least). Sure. Send me the _s template you have, and I’ll see what I can break. ;)

  3. In my Googling on the topic, I’ve run into the Genesis framework and associated themes. Is this what your mini-rant about appearance versus function is referring to?

    I’m still not sure you’ve made it easier to choose a theme by limiting it to those from Automattic. Lots of choices still. Do all themes support tabbed menus across the top and a sidebar or sidebars for displaying things like mailing list signup, book covers, an event calendar, etc.? Or do I need to go into each one and investigate the details of it to find out?

    1. Well, Genesis and Thesis are frameworks and are intended to work that way, so they’re not themes, per se, but if you dive into one of those, the same rant applies. I don’t like them but others may. Just know you’ll be learning a separate tool, not WordPress, and if you ever abandon that tool you’ll have to learn something else all over.

      Tabbed menus and at least one sidebar are standard WordPress features and virtually all themes will have them. Some have the menus in different places, some have more than one sidebar.

      Look through the samples of the themes, just the thumbnails. Get an idea how they’re laid out. Focus on those laid out like you want your site. You’ll find half a dozen that are essentially laid out as you want. Choose one of those based on the colors and general feel. At this point it becomes a personal choice about colors and screen layout.

      And, in the end, if you choose one of those themes and you don’t like it, you can choose another and switch without breaking anything.

      Install 3 or 4 and play with them one at a time. You’ll find something you like.

      And if not, come back and holler.

      1. Thanks. I figured out the whole learning a new tool thing after I posted that comment. I used to be a geek. There was a time when I hand-coded HTML and actually understood CSS, neither in any depth. My computer expertise was in IBM midrange systems. But I retired from all of that to write. I have no desire to spend my retirement learning more programming in time that should be spent writing novels. I already bookmarked a few of the Automattic themes to experiment with. Thanks for the support.

  4. Thanks for the tips, Joel. Here’s my question, can I keep one page unique (like the one you know I have) and use a different theme on other pages? I want to use different themes, but don’t want to mess up my main page. Is there another way? Maybe just link to a different site?

    1. Best option is different sites. If you have space on your hosting, that’s the route I’d go.

      Barring that, you can load a custom stylesheet for one set of pages, and fall back to the default stylesheet for anything else. Messier and prone to confusion, but possible.

      If you use static HTML instead of WordPress, it’s trivial: just load the stylesheet in the head of the document (and if that ever becomes likely, I’ll translate the geekspeak, though I think you’re fairly conversant in geek yerself.)

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