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Measure Twice, Cut Once

Planning your content first can help you choose the right theme.

Photo Credit: Brian Smithson (Old Geordie) via Compfight cc

Note: A theme sets the look and feel of your site. Although all themes in our Theme Showcase fundamentally work the same way, themes can have significant differences regarding specific layouts, options, and functionality.

One of the first things that most people do with a new site or when freshening up an existing one is spend loads of time looking at themes. Once they choose a theme, it’s not uncommon for folks to spend considerable time and effort customizing it, all without planning for content. If you’re in that group, I hope you’ll reconsider your approach.

You see, content should come first.

This is a good thing for everyone to remember, not just first-time bloggers. A site with ho-hum content — or worse, no content — will keep people from coming back, assuming that they find your site in the first place.

Content should drive the theme, not vice versa. What good is a pretty site if no one looks at it?

Why do so many people work on their theme first?

Most of us are visual thinkers. Others may just overestimate the importance of how a site looks and underestimate the importance of what it says.

But there’s another reason. Writing can be hard work.

There have been times that I’ve played with themes as a procrastination method when I was unsure what to write or self-conscious about sharing my writing.

Spending time looking for themes and customizing them are ways to feel like you’re working on your site (and you are) without doing the hardest and most personal work: creating content.

The good news? Having a plan can guide you even during those times when your muse has left the building or your internal editor is hollering at you that your writing isn’t good enough.

So let’s put a plan together!

Measure once: define your scope

Maybe you’re a brand-new writer or perhaps your blog’s focus has shifted over time. Or maybe you haven’t changed your theme in a while and want a new look.

No matter which group you’re in, you should spend some time thinking about what you want to write about — and what you don’t want to write about — before picking a theme.

Let’s say that you want to write about travel. Specifically, you want to write about places you’ve been, places you want to go to, travel tips, and travel gear. However, you absolutely do not want to write about the ins and outs of frequent flyer programs because who can keep all of that stuff straight?

Congratulations! You just created the beginning of a content plan.

Hint: Use the Reader to browse other blogs on the same topic you want to write about to see how others organize their content.

Next, think about how you want to organize your content. Consider how you might use categories and tags to help visitors navigate your content or discover your site in the Reader.

It’s helpful to create a basic sitemap at this stage.

sitemap

Tool tip: I used Creately, a free online tool, to make this sitemap, but you can use a pencil and paper. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

A sitemap serves as a visual representation of how your content is organized and how each piece relates to the whole.

Measure twice: decide on basic presentation

Now that you have an idea of what you’re going to write about and how you’re going to organize it, let’s talk about how you want to present your content. Here are a few things to think about, using our travel blog example for reference:

  • Will your content be text-heavy with essays about your travel or image-heavy with pictures of places you’ve been?
  • Is there specific content that you want to draw particular attention to, like a travel tip of the week? If so, how will you do that?
  • Are you planning to use widgets to showcase content, link to your social media profiles, or encourage people to follow you? If so, do you want to add them to a sidebar, footer, or maybe both?
  • Speaking of sidebars, do you want one? Are there any other layout options you need, like multiple columns?
  • What general colors or style are you looking for? Perhaps a glamorous look for today’s jetsetter or a retro vibe invoking the golden age of travel?
  • Are there design elements or features that will help your visitors more easily navigate your site to find the content they’re looking for?

You may find that sketching a basic layout, or wireframe, is helpful.

Tool tip: Like the sitemap, this wireframe example was done using Creately, but again, pencil and paper work just fine.

wireframe2

Using your plan, it’s time to get working on creating content. You just need a bit of content to get started, so don’t worry about having everything set before you pick a theme.

Hint: If you need some inspiration, we’ve got you covered with daily prompts or our free ebook, 365 Days of Writing Prompts. Once you’re off to a good start, consider using an editorial calendar to help keep you going.

Write a few posts or pages and upload a handful of images. Then, using your sitemap, set up the categories you listed. You can add some tags, too, if you’d like.

Once you have just a few pieces of content in place, you’re ready to go theme shopping!

Using your notes on presentation, check out our Theme Showcase. Use the filters at the top to narrow down the selection. You can also choose to include free themes only, premium themes only, or all themes.

theme showcase filters

Hint: Browsing our layout and design category or reading how other people chose their themes might give you a few ideas, too.

If you have the WordPress.com Business plan on your site, you also have access to our premium themes.

Next, pick a few themes that come closest to the layout and style that you’re looking for and have the features you need. You should be down to a handful of themes at this point, so spend time poking around each demo site, then choose the one you like best.

So that’s it!

You should now have some new tools in your toolbox to help you build or update your site using a theme that will fit your needs.

We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment and tell us how you picked your current theme or which tactics you used to plan your layout around your content. Or, if  you’ve been inspired to make some changes, let us know how things go!

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  1. Good advice.
    It’s important to make your site visually pleasing, but it is more important to make your posts easy to read or view.
    Unfortunately I’m told my posts are easy to read.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Hi! I’m so glad to read about themes, as I am currently thinking about changing mine and refreshing the whole look, but I’m lost.

    Some of the themes are quite tricky to get them to look similar to the showcase, and usually you have to do a lot of customization, but I don’t want to activate a theme that is still halfway through… So I’m undecided still.

    This has definitely helped giving me an idea of how to plan the change and choose a theme, which is a great first step. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks! Yes, that’s what I use, but sometimes it’s more about how taking the time. It would be great to have an option to save a theme and the changes made to make it look nice before activating it – I’m assuming there isn’t that option yet, since I haven’t seen it (apologies if there is and I’ve missed it) The forum is a great tip as well, thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Most of your settings (widgets, fonts, and things like that) should come back again if you activate a different theme and then revert back to the one you started with. One precaution: if you have custom CSS, you should back that up before you activate a new theme.

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      3. On another forum we have been discussing creating a private test blog and trying out changes on there before pikemen ting them on our live sites. You could export your blog and then import it into the new one or copy and paste a few posts. I will be trying out this theory soon on my site http://www.wraptweaving.com

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  3. I would say try twice, cut once. Even for a well established popular blog there is still something new to try. Content is important yes, as well as trying different themes and widgets while writing content. I’m one of those who spend a lot of time customizing a theme and I change it every week because I want to experience what effects different layouts and colors have on readers.
    Thank you for this post, I’ll use the hint of diving categories in parent and sub-categories 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I know it took me a long time to find the right theme because I couldn’t find one that had the majority of what I wanted, so I settled on the best I could until a new theme came along that seemed better. I like the one I have now.

    For my secondary site it was easy since my needs weren’t as big and the look of the theme matched my intended presentation perfectly.

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      1. Thank you!!! As a newbie, I appreciate the advice and I will use this on my blog! I get weird comments on my page from people that I think are trying to sell me stuff for blog optimization and I think they are probably scammers. I appreciate the helpful advice from a real resource. Have a great day!

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      1. Another way to find examples is looking the forum for the specific theme, specially for premium themes; the older or popular the theme, the more examples you may find.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Wendy for the useful information on adding spice to our blogs or sites rather by means of the themes we make use of on our sites. To say the truth most of us are new to this whole business of the internet. We have got a long way to go on matters theme customization and all that .You could be of much help if you could be generous enough to catch on this matter

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      1. Good point! I’m considering adding a gallery there that links through to popular items but it seems time consuming so I haven’t gotten around to it quite yet. Thanks for taking a look!

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    1. Hey Steve! There’s nothing wrong with changing your theme to give your site a fresh look every now and again. My only thought would be to be careful about changing it really frequently using themes that are drastically different in look and navigation since that might make it hard for your visitors to feel “at home” and familiar with your site and how to find content they’re interested in.

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      1. Cool thanks. Usually my changes now are much more subtle. It has changed quite a lot from the original layout as in the past year I think I have “grown” into my blog 🙂

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  6. Great advice I guess it is the technical bit which I find hard to do. I guess I may need to do a basic course on the technical side of blogging.I have worked hard trying to do the best I can but still my sites are very dull.

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    1. Hey there! We have some resources to help you get started. Learn.wordpress.com is a great place to get a solid foundation in the basics. Createyour.wordpress.com is another good one to check out.

      And, under the perfect timing heading, we’re starting up a two new free Blogging University “101” classes on Monday Sept. 15. Here’s a link if you want to check it out: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/bloggingu-september-registration-final/

      Happy blogging!

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      1. Thank you Wendy, in the past I did sign up with “101” and tried hard to do the daily challenges I still struggle to attract viewers to my posts. I am working hard to figure out how I can help myself by identifying what it is I am not getting.

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  7. In my seven years of WordPress blogging, I’ve sometimes been obsessive about studying the themes and choosing the right one.

    I continue to struggle with defining the scope a blog and then having the discipline to color within the lines.

    I decided I wanted a brand new blog, a personal blog. I want to eschew the heavy subjects of politics and economics that have bogged me down and made readers’ eyes glaze over. I want to talk about everyday life in the more mature stages. I plan to make the environment and global climate change a frequent touchstone.

    I decided I finally want to heed the advice to use a simple, elevate theme that with no distractions from the content, which will be words and photos. I narrowed the short list to Syntax and Book Lite. And the winner is: Book Lite. You can see it in action at http://everyday.me

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    1. Hi John! It looks like you chose a great theme to keep the focus on your words and photos. 🙂

      You bring up another good point, which is that it can be a good idea to have more than one blog if you want to write about subjects that are unrelated to each other or if you’re trying to appeal to distinct audiences.

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