When starting your own website from scratch—using WordPress—one of the first and most important choices you’ll face is what theme to use. Your WordPress theme will affect how your site looks and feels (the aesthetics), but it will also affect its functionality (the bells and whistles). Some themes are extraordinarily simple and bare bones, while others have a learning curve of their own!
Side note: If you have money to invest in your website, you could hire a designer to develop a unique and customized theme for you. While that may seem an ideal scenario, some writers may not have enough knowledge or experience to tell the designer/developer what’s important to them in the site design or functionality. That’s why I typically advise writers get started on their own at first, then after 6 to 12 months, once you’ve had time to “settle in” to your site, you know better what you want. However, if you’re building a site that ought to be savvy and professional from day one, go hire a developer!
Every semester, I help my digital media students navigate the theme selection, and I’ve seen how choosing the right theme (based on the needs of their content) can contribute to a frictionless, enjoyable experience for the visitor, or be a disaster. Fortunately, it’s easy to change themes, although keep in mind that for sites that have been around a long time (and have lots of content)—or for sites that use a very unique theme with special functions or presentation—then you’ll have a lot of “remodeling” to do whenever you transition from one theme to another. (Example: When I transitioned my own site in late 2014 from Twenty Twelve to Vantage, it took me roughly 12-18 hours to “refit” everything, and I still had many hours of other tweaks after the fact. I’m a special case, but I put that out there as a warning not to assume changing themes is quick and easy.)
Here are some the key questions I ask when choosing a theme.
1. Who created the theme and is it being actively improved or developed?
Not all themes are created equal, and some theme developers are better than others. Obviously, you want to choose a theme that appears to be robust and of high quality, as well as a theme that’s keeping up with WordPress core updates.
If you browse or search the WordPress Theme library, you can easily identify who created the theme, when it was last updated, and look at its ratings. Unless you’re savvy with code, avoid choosing very new themes, since they might be buggy—unless they’ve been developed by a really stellar source (such as WordPress itself!).
In the theme library, you can also find a link to the theme’s “demo,” where you can click around and see its different features and layouts.
2. How many people are using the theme? How easily can you find help or look for solutions?
The WordPress Theme library also tells you how many people have downloaded the theme, which is useful to know. The more people use that theme, the more likely you’ll be able to find other people who might experience the same bugs as you, or who develop solutions or add-ons specifically for your theme.
Some themes—especially those you pay for—come with a support community, where you can post about any problems you experience and get hands-on help. This is of course a huge bonus.
3. How much does the theme depend on great visuals?
Some WordPress themes are driven predominantly by stunning, full-width visuals (photos that stretch across the screen). Or they have homepages that are mostly images, with a little bit of text. Maybe it’s belaboring the obvious, but don’t choose image-driven themes unless you have good reason—e.g., you’re a photographer, illustrator, or someone else with good-quality visuals to upload.
4. Is the theme really only suited to blogging? What are the homepage options?
WordPress automatically favors a blog-driven layout on the homepage. If you don’t plan on blogging, that makes it a bit tougher to shop for themes, because the theme’s default design probably puts the blog front and center. Therefore, themes may look “bloggy” even if their homepage allows for extensive customization.
When browsing themes, look closely at how much power/control you have over the homepage presentation. See if there is a special template for the homepage (see next question). Favor those themes that don’t seem to put the blog front and center. My theme, Vantage, is a fine example.
5. How many page templates and post templates does the theme offer?
Every WordPress theme offers a starter set of page templates and blog post templates. Each template offers a different configuration for the page or blog post. For example, my theme offers the following page templates:
- Default template (main text area, plus one sidebar)
- Full-width page (text runs the full width, no sidebars)
- Full-width page, no title (same as above, but it removes the title of the page)
- Page Builder Home (a special feature of my theme that allows me to build a page column by column and row by row)
The fewer templates available, of course the less freedom you have to customize each page on your site. Some themes have incredible levels of customization related to these templates, while others offer almost none. The description of the theme should make it clear what your options will be, and its demo site should show you the various page or post templates.
6. What widget areas does the theme offer?
WordPress sites have widget areas where you can embed all the “fun” or interactive stuff on your site, such as social media badges or icons, email newsletter signups, and book cover images. Widget areas are typically in three places: the header, the sidebar, and the footer. (If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see my four widget areas in the footer! Not to mention my sidebar widget area.)
Confirm what widget areas your theme offers, and make sure they appear where you want them. I’ve noticed a trend in theme design where widget areas are invisible—and/or there might only be one—and for most authors, this is a mistake.
7. How are featured images used, if at all?
Some themes make heavy use of “featured images,” which are images tied to very specific pages or posts that end up getting used across the site in different ways. This means that if you fail to upload a featured image for any page/post, then part of your site design will end up looking crappy, because it has no featured image to display.
Sometimes, the “featured image” functionality becomes important when transitioning to a new theme, especially if featured images get used in a different way than your old theme. (Basically, it can mean a lot of increased labor.)
8. What are the customization options, if any?
Every theme offers some level of customization, even if it’s fairly minor. For instance, most themes allow you to customize the site header in some way, and perhaps choose from a few color schemes. Be careful; more customization isn’t always good. Sometimes it means more opportunities for your site to “break” or behave poorly.
9. If you’re blogging, does the blog post presentation have everything you want (or don’t want)?
Always check the blog post template and what kind of information it emphasizes (or not). Some themes don’t include very basic information, such as the post author or date. They may not offer an author bio box at the end of posts. They may emphasize the date of the post when that’s the last thing you want emphasized. And so on.
10. What’s the learning curve?
If you end up paying for a theme, then you’ll find that themes can become very powerful, which increases their complexity, and in turn increases the amount of time you have to spend learning how they work. For those who are still new to WordPress, I recommend holding off on purchasing a theme until you know what WordPress can do on its own. That way you’re in a better position to evaluate the features of paid themes, and if they’re providing you something really special or valuable.
Some Wordpress Themes I Like
Keep in mind that if you’re using the free WordPress.com, your theme options will be limited. If you’re self-hosted, then you can choose and install any theme you like.
- I’m very happy with the theme I’m using, Vantage, which is uber-customizable. However, it’s likely too complex for someone new to WordPress.
- Any of the themes produced by Automattic (creators of WordPress) are worth consideration.
- Michael Hyatt’s Get Noticed theme is a premium theme with strong support, geared toward authors.
- I discuss 5 free WordPress themes for writers.
- My students have had good results with: Edin, Zoren, Publisher (more visual)
Are there themes you highly recommend? What have you learned about choosing the right WordPress theme? Let me know in the comments.
More Advice on Author Websites
- The Basic Components of an Author Website
- Self-Hosting Your Author Website: Why and How to Do It
- Building Your First Website: Resource List
- The Big Mistake of Author Websites and Blogs
- Get Started Guide: Blogging for Writers
- WordPress Plugins I Can’t Live Without
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.