If you missed my first lesson on setting up an author site where I discussed web hosting and domain names, please take a moment and go have a look. You can find Lesson 1 here.
I’m assuming at this point that you have a web site set up on some hosting provider, running WordPress, and you know the address that resolves to your site.
Following my own advice from Lesson 1:
- I signed up for web hosting over at BlueHost (there are loads of other hosting companies)
- I read the fine print to make sure that I owned any address BlueHost registered on my behalf and once satisfied, I had BlueHost register www.WritingHagg.com on my behalf
- I logged into my BlueHost control panel and used their Simple Scripts to install WordPress on WritingHagg
Least you need to know: I’m assuming you have a site up and going, and running WordPress.
Why do I even need a Theme?
Well “need” is a strong word.
I remember taking my daughter to soccer camp one summer at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was staying in one of the dorms and as we hauled bags into her room, the first word that jumped into my mind was blah. Everything was this blah-brown Formica with worn corners, pealing laminate, and a plastic covering on the mattress. You know, like just about every dorm room in the world.
My first impulse was to go shopping for posters and to print some pictures from my phone that I could put in a nice frame. Maybe I’d buy a ficus for the corner and one of those bougainvillea bonsai trees of death (have you seen those thorns?) for the windowsill. Then I wouldn’t have felt so bad about leaving her. Then the place would have felt a little more like home; a little more like her.
Ah, and that’s exactly why you set up a Theme in WordPress.
When WordPress builds pages it starts with the data that you type for the page’s content and it maps that text + images + formatting into a display template defined by the Theme you select. Think of it like making a form letter. The Theme is the, “Dear ____, The following order will be shipped on ______” and the page you make fills in the blanks.
The default Theme in WordPress is currently called twenty-fourteen. It isn’t a bad theme. It’s got lots of black and white, nice overall layout, good general features, but it’s still sorta like that dorm room. It so needs a bonsai tree of death somewhere.
Least you need to know: A theme is a lot of what a visitor first sees when they visit your site and we all know what they say about first impressions.
Finding a Theme
The first thing you should do before choosing a Theme is to look around at other author sites and figure out the page elements that appeal to you. You many not be a bougainvillea type of person.
I’m keeping an eye on a greyhound who just underwent exploratory surgery so I’m typing this from a table in my living room. I just looked at the bookcase next to me and started picking out authors at random. These are the first four that had WordPress running on their site:
You should look at those author sites and at loads of others and see what elements you like. If you really like a particular site a lot, scroll to the bottom and see if they have a link to the theme they’re using. If not you can still note the things on the site that work and the things that you don’t like.
Once you have decided on the types of things that you’d like to see in your theme then you have to decide if your going to
- Build the theme yourself
- Pay someone to build it for you
- Use one of the many available themes and adapt it to your needs
I’m not going to touch my first two choices with a 10ft pole. Building a WordPress theme is a complex exercise requiring knowledge of graphic design, web design, HTML, CSS, PHP, and WordPress. If that appeals to you then you should go look at one of the many available books as well as the help files from the WordPress folks:
For this blog series I’m going to assume that you’re picking one of the pre-created themes. Themes are easy to find, sometimes too easy. For starters look:
WordPress.org, the people who own and maintain WordPress, keep a running list of free themes. Some have for-buy add-ons, but it’s still a great place to start looking at theme options. If you can’t find what you need there then you can also just hit Google and do a search, “award winning wordpress themes 2014” will net you more themes than you can imagine.
When trying to pick a theme, you should consider:
- What’s it going to cost? Free is nice, but there are some really cool add-ons for not much $$$
- Does the theme have reviews/stars? If so, is it well ranked and by lots of people?
- Does the theme appear to be updated frequently and was the last update recently?
- Is the theme “Responsive” or does it say anything about working with hand held devices
- Does the theme have sample sites that you can look at?
- Does the theme appear to have many customization points?
For example, if I run over to the WordPress theme site and search for, “Writer.” The first option in the results is:
It might be a great theme but what I notice immediately is:
- 3,454 downloads
- No reviews
- In version 1.0 and hasn’t been updates since August 2013
- On the developers tab I see this it has two versions (.1 and 1.0)
It’s free so I could try it, but I’m not feeling wowed. Third in the search results was:
I don’t know anything about this theme either but I see:
- All these WordPress.org search results are free, so free
- 5 reviewers which isn’t a great number but they seem positive and I see two reviews on the review tab
- 6 versions have been released, this latest in March of 2014
- There’s a link to the Theme (developers) page
All in all, not great but I feel better about this one than the first.
As a final result, let’s look at the page for the twenty-fourteen theme that comes by default with WordPress installs:
- Downloaded 123,000 times
- Has a link to a Theme Homepage
- 45 reviews with a rank of 4.2 stars
- Only two versions but the last was released a couple of weeks ago
In the end, picking a Theme is mostly personal choice but there are a lot of options and as you’re about to see, changing the theme is easy on your WordPress site.
Least you need to know: There are zillions of Themes and they are easy to find and use, so shop around a little and find one that has the look and functionality that you need. If you don’t like a theme also remember, it’s easy to change it.
Installing a Theme
Great, so you’ve decided to at least try a theme, what do you do next?
Installing a theme is super easy. After you’ve found the theme you want to try, click the Download link and save a copy on your computer. It should come down as a .zip file.
Head on over to the admin part of your site http://YourURLHere/wp-admin and log in if needed.
If you’re already logged in your Dashboard should immediately appear. Look along the left edge of the Dashboard at the choices. Locate and click Appearance | Theme
You’re now looking at the themes you have installed. If you’re installing something new, click on the link up top that reads Add New. Then click Upload Theme and use the dialog to select and upload the theme you downloaded earlier. Once you see the message that reads, “Theme installed successfully.” follow the link to “Return to Themes page.”
Least you need to know: Download your theme then on your site Dashboard select Appearance | Theme | Add New | Upload Theme and use the dialog to upload the new theme.
Using a theme once you have it installed
Once you have your new theme installed if you’ll click once again in your Dashboard on Appearance | Theme then you’ll see your new theme listed.
Select on your theme and towards the bottom of the resulting page click, Live Preview. You should then see a preview of what your home page would look like if you continue to use this theme. It also will provide customization points along the left side. If the theme looks good, select Save & Activate.
Once you have the theme installed there are a number of ways it can be customized. For example, I see that the Jim Butcher’s site:
is using a theme named Suffusion. If you look at the example they have over on the Suffusion theme page at WordPress.org you’ll see:
Yes, I can see the core elements of the theme, but Jim and his peeps have done some customization work.
Luckily, themes provide a number of core customization points. To see how your theme can be customized, once again click on the Appearance section of your Dashboard and examine the options. Up on WritingHagg I’ve got the stock 2014 theme installed at this point so my choices are:
- Customize: A general set of customization points, some of which are duplicated on the other menus.
- Widgets: Visual components that you add to your page, usually along the edges, for links, search, and other dynamic capabilities.
- Menus: The core navigation links in your site
- Header: The top of the page (image)
- Background: The image loaded behind the contents of the page
- Editor: Advance customization points
I’m going to save Widgets and Menus for part of a later post.
Least you need to know: Themes provide a lot of cool out of the box functionality as well as a number of customization points.
Theme customization basics
Probably the least you need to customize in your theme is:
- Title and tagline
- Header image
- Color settings
- Menus and Widgets (which I will cover in a later post)
- Background image
For an example I’m going to use my http://www.WritingHagg.com test site. It’s nothing much to look at but it’s a decent start. I’ve added a few made up posts for example content but nothing much more than standard stuff:
The title and tagline appear at the top of the left column in a lot of themes. Honestly, I probably should turn it off the way I have the site laid out but I’ve got it on so you can see it.
The title and tagline are customized on Dashboard | Appearance | Customize | Site Title & Tagline. Try something in each of the settings and also try disabling them altogether. Sometimes less is more.
Speaking of less is more, the Header is one of those love it or hate it kinds of things. It is a classic piece of site design, but it also eats up a lot of page area for nothing more interesting than a pic. Again, I have a header image set on my example site and I honestly think I might prefer a theme that allowed me to use the witch image but not the whole side-to-side header, you know what I mean?
Before you set your header, visit the header settings on Dashboard | Appearance | Header and read the size recommendations in the Select Image section. If you use an image that doesn’t match the recommended size then WordPress will help you crop and size it so it works, but I’d size it before hand if it were me.
Image sizing is a bit beyond the scope of this post but you can use web sites like:
If you prefer an app you download then you might go with GIMP:
And of course the professional tool du jour for image manipulation is PhotoShop (which you can now pay for monthly rather than by version). An expert at PhotoShop really can do anything. I just noticed a new framed picture of my wife’s horse on her desk and asked, “Hey, didn’t I used to be in that picture holding Sonny? (the horse)?”
“Yes,” she replied, “You were but I Photoshopped you out.”
To create my basic logo I did some Google searches for “Public Domain Images” and found that witch logo from a long defunct nylon stocking company. I then used one of the online image editors to create the box with the border and to add the Harry Potter stylized text. It’s basic but it’s something to start with.
Graphic design is not my forte and in real life I’d hire one of the many professionals I know. You also might look at a new trend called crowdsourcing for your logo / banner / graphic design. You don’t have that personal relationship with your designer like you would if it was someone local, but it can be really cheap. Here’s general info:
and a couple of sites that help
Color settings are again found on Dashboard | Appearance | Customize but the options depend greatly on your Theme. I wasn’t a huge fan of the black, white, and green in 2014 but that’s what you’re stuck with out of the box. I’ll talk about plugins in a later post but if you can follow the steps:
Then you’ll have a lot more color options to play with.
Background images and colors are found on Dashboard | Appearance | Background and they can be nice as long as they don’t impede the readers ability to read the text on your page. When playing with colors, fonts, and backgrounds always ensure enough contrast or the user will go away annoyed. I was just recently on a site that was a black background with white text. That wouldn’t have been an issue, but then they added a dark grey background image. The combination of the three made the text extremely difficult to read and sent me away less than impressed.
Least you need to know: Your Theme customization points may be found on the Dashboard | Appearance menu.
The WordPress theme is your central setting for deciding the overall look of your site. If you’re just getting started, download some free options from WordPress.org and experiment until you find something that looks like you, but also looks professional. Since the Theme is easy to switch, try several options and see what you like. Also, examine the available settings on each.
Finally, remember that sometimes you get what you pay for. There are a lot of theme companies that sell WordPress themes so when you investigate, don’t overlook something you might have to pay for. But do your research; there are so many free themes these days that you might be perfectly happy with that option.
That’s about all I have for you this week. Let me know if you have any questions and tune in next week for my discussion of creating pages and posting to your blog.
Got questions for Pat? Fire away!
Lesann Berry on Using Different Tools to Explore New Directions in Your Writing
Bio: After four years in the USMC, Patrick Haggerty studied Actuarial Science and Computers at Georgia State University. He has spent the past 15+ years developing and delivering technical training courses for Learning Tree International. On the side he has a successful consulting practice doing web application development for clients ranging from the United State Marines to Delta Airlines.
Seven years ago, stuck reading a mediocre book in yet another hotel, Patrick decided to try his hand at fiction. He may not be published, but these days you are much more likely to find him spending his evenings writing romance, than code. Patrick is an active member of RWA, RWAustralia, RW New Zealand, and is VP of Membership for Gulf Coast Romance Writers of America, and VP of OIRWA.
- WordPress for Non-Techies
- Creating a WordPress Author Site – Part 4 with Patrick Haggerty
- WordPress for Non-Techies the Fifth
- WordPress Part Deux
- WordPress for Non-Techies the Grand Finale