You’ve been using WordPress for a while, and feel pretty confident with managing your website when it comes to normal, day-to-day tasks.

But what happens when you need to make big changes on your site, or troubleshoot a problem that pops up? Do you feel confident in knowing how WordPress works, and how to make it work for you the way you need it to?

Beyond day-to-day blog posting and maintenance, maybe you feel a little lost.

If you’re looking to build your knowledge and confidence in WordPress, you’re in the right place.

With all the WordPress tips and advice scattered across the web, it can be overwhelming to advance your own skills. There isn’t one single course or program you can take to become an expert; instead, there are a million courses, programs, blog posts, and e-books that might help you – or might be totally irrelevant to you right now.

To advance your own knowledge of WordPress, it helps to start with the basics. Follow the steps below to learn how WordPress works, how to put that knowledge into practice, how to troubleshoot when something goes wrong, and where you should go to further your WordPress mastery.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Understand how WordPress works

WordPress

You can study coding and design all you like, but it won’t help you without understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

In a nutshell, WordPress works by building “dynamic” web pages that are populated with information from a database. Each page is built on-the-fly whenever it’s visited (unless you have a caching plugin – but that’s beyond the scope of this post!).

For example, whenever you view a single blog post on your page, no matter which post you see, you’re always viewing the exact same file: single.php. But the content of the page – the blog post content, date, contents, etc. – changes.

This is possible because WordPress doesn’t just use HTML, the language of the web, to build pages. It also uses a programming language called PHP, which is used to retrieve information from a MySQL database. The PHP is nestled between bits of HTML code, which gives the page its structure.

A snippet of PHP code that asks for your blog post’s title from the database looks like this:


<?php the_title(); ?>

Then, that information is inserted in between the HTML code that structures the page, which would look something like this:


<h1 class="entry-title"><?php the_title(); ?></h1>

Then, in separate CSS files, styling is added to complete the look of the page. That might look something like this:


h1.entry-title {text-transform: uppercase; font-weight: bold;}

The result is the individual blog post you see (or, just the title, in the case of the example).

Recommended resources

  • Check out WP101 for a short course and video tutorials on how WordPress works.
  • Find a huge number of video courses on uDemy, some are paid but you’ll find 50+ free courses.

Step 2: Learn the languages

Languages

You don’t need to become an expert programmer to get the most out of WordPress, but some basic knowledge of the languages involved will help.

With a basic working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and PHP, you’ll be able to easily tweak your site to make whatever changes you want, and more easily troubleshoot any problems that arise.

Here’s the recommended order you should learn them in:

  1. HTML is the language of the Internet. It gives every single web page its structure, not just WordPress sites.
  2. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is what gives plain HTML pages their good looks. Its affects the font, color, and size of your text, the size of margins and white space, the position of images and other elements on the page, and can create cool hover and animation effects as well.
  3. PHP is the programming language used by WordPress. You don’t need to become an expert programmer, but learning the basics of how it works can go a long way.

Learning these languages can be a daunting task. Remember, WordPress has a large and active community, so there’s plenty of help available if you have questions or get stuck!

Recommended resources

Step 3: Follow troubleshooting steps

 Follow troubleshooting steps

Learning the basic steps to troubleshoot WordPress can help you to feel like an expert because you’ll be able to identify and solve most basic problems on your own, without asking for help.

And for the pesky problems you can’t solve, you’ll be able to at least narrow down where the issue lies, and give useful information when you seek help – and you’ll know where to go for help.

Whether you’re facing a blank white page, a PHP error, or a missing file or wonky website function, you can follow these steps to see what the issue could be.

Note: Some of these steps might mess with the look and functions of your site, so you may want to use a plugin like SeedProd Coming Soon to set up a temporary “under maintenance” page to keep visitors informed. Announcing on your social media accounts that you’re doing some maintenance is also a good idea to keep your audience from getting frustrated. Alternatively, most landing page plugins will come with their own ‘coming soon’ template you could use but it doesn’t have the same ability to block access to your site while you’re building it.

1. Review recent changes

Think about any changes you’ve made lately. Have you…

  • …updated any themes, plugins, or core files?
  • …installed any new themes or plugins?
  • …tweaked any code?

If so, try rolling back any recent changes (either by undoing them, or restoring a recent backup), and see if that resolves the issue. Then take a close look at the changes you had made to see where the issue might lie.

2. Turn on WordPress debugging

WordPress has a built-in debugging mode that can help to identify any errors.

When this mode is activated, instead of trying to work around or ignore errors, it will generate and display error messages on your site to tell you exactly what’s going wrong.

You can turn on debugging mode manually from your wp-config.php file, which holds the settings for your site. Your wp-config.php file is located in the main directory where WordPress is installed.

To turn on the debugging mode, just add these lines to the bottom of the file:


define( 'WP_DEBUG', true );

define( 'SCRIPT_DEBUG', true );

Now reload your website and look for any errors, warnings, or notices. The specific error message may help you to pinpoint the theme or plugin that’s causing the issue, but at the very least you can search for solutions on the web, or post the message in a forum for help.

3. Disable your plugins

Plugins are a common cause of errors. If you disable all your plugins and your site suddenly works again, you know one of them is the issue. You can enable them one by one (starting with your “under maintenance” plugin!) to pinpoint the one that’s causing the issue.

If you find that a plugin is causing the error, you can contact support and switch to an alternative in the meantime.

To quickly disable all your plugins, you can rename the plugin folder (/wp-content/plugins) in your file manager or FTP client so that WordPress can’t locate them.

4. Revert the default theme

If your plugins aren’t causing the issue, it could be your theme. Try switching to the default WordPress theme to see if that resolves the error. If the theme is causing the problem, you can contact the theme developer for support, and switch to another theme in the meantime.

Recommended resources

If you’re unable to resolve the issue using these steps, try asking for help on the official WordPress support forums, or post to the WordPress Development Stack Exchange.

Step 4: Create your own simple theme or plugin

Create your own simple theme or plugin

You’re well on your way to becoming a WordPress expert now, but how will you know when you reach that status?

One great test of your skills is by creating something new:

  • If you’re into design, you might try putting your new CSS skills to work by designing your own child theme. Consider using a framework like Genesis.
  • If you’re up for a bigger challenge, you could even try creating your own theme from scratch. Try using a basic framework to start with, like Underscores or Bones.
  • If PHP is your thing, why not create your own plugin? Check out this detailed course on Lynda.com, WordPress: Creating Custom Widgets and Plugins with PHP.

What is a WordPress expert?

Everyone defines “expert” differently. You might not feel comfortable calling yourself a “WordPress expert” even if you’ve followed all the steps here, but at least you’ll be that much more confident in your WordPress skills than before!

Posted by KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn Engel is a copywriter & content marketing strategist. Keri loves working with B2B & B2C businesses to plan and create high-quality content that attracts and converts their target audience. When not writing, you can find her reading speculative fiction, watching Star Trek, or playing Telemann flute fantasias at a local open mic.