5 Primo Coding Secrets for English Majors

Last week, as I was trudging through the quicksand of changing my website theme, constantly sinking into the swamp of contradictory code and grasping at branches of CSS held out by travelers before me, I wondered if something positive could be pulled out of the mess. Aha! I could share what I learned with the blogosphere. Thus, in the spirit of passing on some recently, painfully-earned wisdom, I will share the most dominant lessons.

CSS code response = success
Source: Dreamstime.com

Have you ever forgotten to save your writing after a long stretch of creativity, only to have your computer crash and lose hours of your genius? In the old pre-computer days, this was known as “the teacher lost my paper.” Two weeks of my best creativity disappeared because I was too cheap to make a copy of my seminal work on the religious imagery in e.e. cummings’ poetry. It still bothers me, decades later! Back up your work. Here’s what that means when you are creating or making changes to a blog site.

1. Write down the changes you make–preferably as you go

Most writers know how and why to keep track of changes as they go, either by using a Track Changes feature or the primitive “print it out and make edits by hand” method. Version control becomes an issue when you don’t keep track. Also, what if you change something and you decide you don’t like it? You might want that original brilliant phrase back which only sounded mundane after a night reading Seamus Haney. The same logic applies to changes to technology.

Escher hands and PHP code
Source:Escher.com + a soupcon of CSS

Your dashboard (or /wp-admin section) lists your theme, menus, and other settings, but it doesn’t capture how you got there. Get a notebook, journal, Word file–whatever it takes–and write down key attributes. What’s your theme? (Appearance-Theme). What font is your header in? How about your main text? Where did your header image come from? Think about it this way–if you did have to recreate all of that, would you want to make all those decisions again from scratch?

The same logic goes for any CSS code or widgets you have. Make a list of what you have with descriptions of what they’re for. Even if it’s listed on the screen right now, what if WordPress loses your paper?

2. Create a child theme before  you start mucking around

If you’ve been modifying your theme with CSS code at all, you should create a child theme and modify that version, not the parent. WordPress periodically updates the parent themes, which could wipe out your changes. Or, you could break something in your version of the parent and have to start all over again. This tutorial on Child Themes is pretty comprehensive. Note that if you don’t know what an FTP server is or a .php file is, then go easy on the coding.

Next, let’s talk about UX. UX, which stands for User Experience, is the fancy coder way to describe what your readers read. How the reader sees your words will influence whether they can read your words. Here are a few tips to consider.

3. Don’t mix and match

I was tempted to start by saying don’t mix stripes with plaids, but I think that may even be a Fashion Thing these days. Since my fashion sense teeters somewhere between pub crawler and impractical lumberjack, let’s leave clothing out of the metaphor-sphere. How about don’t start writing a Petrarchan sonnet and then switch to Shakespearean?* Don’t switch point of view from first person to third person omniscient — or, if you must, then don’t use multiple first person POVs or gyrate between first, second, and third POVs. You get the point.

Have you ever seen a first grader create a Powerpoint report? Yes, they start in the first grade these days. Schoolchildren usually go pretty crazy with the fonts and text sizes. When you use font styles, you should limit them to one or two styles, with one or two sizes. If you are going to mix a serif and a sans serif font, then just use one of each, for the same reason you limit mixing points of view. Otherwise, your magnificent poetry gets buried. (Warning: I am about to torture Emily Dickinson to make my point.)



4. Avoid dancing baloney

Sure, I know I can put videos in my header image or on the side. That doesn’t mean I should. Much of the recent functionality added to WordPress is to help companies sell products through their blogs, not to help fledgling bards.  Even though videos are more eye-catching than static text, they will make your good words harder to find. Leave the cats on the pianos to Facebook and Tumblr.

5. Test like a proofreader

Oscar Wilde writing
Oscar Wilde putting in a comma. Source: Burlington Writer’s Workshop

Oscar Wilde once quipped that he spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out again. That can happen with coding, too. Little changes lead to huge modifications to what your readers see. When you make changes, test them carefully.

In most large companies, entire wings of technology are devoted just to testing. Often as many people are on staff to test changes to code as there are to write it in the first place. When you play around with your website, you should use the same level of discipline. Think like a proofreader; be nit-picky.

When you make a change, write down not only what you changed, but whether it broke anything on your site. Look at the whole site, not just the part you were trying to fix. If the change failed, try something else, documenting as you go. Don’t lose the notes about what failed, so that you don’t end up trying them again because you forgot.

If you make a lot of changes–if you customize, add multiple pages, or download plugins to sell your mini-Da Vincis–you may suddenly see a lot of things that don’t work. Make a list of the errors, numbering them if you have to. I know this seems over-engineered, but it’s what the experts do, and it works. Keep in mind that if you don’t code for a living, then your brain coding time is precious and should be lovingly protected with good notes rather than haphazardly squandered. You need to get back to writing or posting your charcoal drawings that make viewers weep; don’t waste your artistic time redoing something because you forgot to write it down.

Virginia Woolf sez, “Test like a Motherf–!”

(Credit: Getty Images/George C. Beresford/gradyreese)

Content still beats formatting

If your formatting is too hard to read, then no one can get to your content, so what you put forth needs to be legible. But don’t forget this basic truth. No matter how pretty your site header, or how elegant your sidebars and footers appear, your content is still the Most Important Thing. Content still beats formatting.

Two falls out of three anyway.



Thank you DailyPost for today’s word, dominant.

*For wannabe literature nerds, a sonnet is a 14-line poem with a rigid rhyming scheme. Petrarchan sonnet’s scheme is ABBAABBACDECDE, while the Shakespearean form is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Hence, if you start writing one way, you can’t switch in the middle.

**In the interests of full disclosure, I do have three separate fonts on my site, but only because I can’t quite figure out the coding to eliminate the third one.  Fixing it is error #157 on my list.

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