WordPress Has Never Offered an Ideal Writing Experience – WP Tavern

Justin Tadlock
It needed to be said. I know some of you loved writing in the classic editor. I know some of you enjoy the current block editor. Some of you may have even been thrilled with the platform’s earlier attempt at a distraction-free writing mode.
But, for actual writing, WordPress has always been kind of, sort of, OK — maybe even good — but not great.
Coupled with a content-focused theme with great typography and a registered editor stylesheet, both the classic and block editors could be equals. They would offer an interface and experience of editing the content as seen on the front end. However, having the back and front ends meet does not necessarily mean you have an ideal writing experience. It can be a top-tier platform for layout and design. However, for typing words on a screen, there are better tools.
When I talk about writing, I am generally referring to mid or long-form content. If you are penning 200-word posts, dropping in photos, or designing a landing page, WordPress is as good as it comes. For publishing software, it is a powerhouse that few systems can rival.
However, publishing and writing are two different things.
There was a time that I wrote pages upon pages of essays, fiction, and everything else by hand. With a pen and pad, I spent hours drafting papers for my college classes. Even in my final two years, as I took four or five English and journalism courses at a time, I clung to what I knew best. The feel of the pen in my hand was a source of comfort. It glided atop the page in legible-but-imperfect cursive.
It was not until an ethnography class that I had to put down the pen and move on to the technological upgrade of the computer. Don’t get me wrong. I was a speedy typist at the time and was well on my way to becoming a WordPress developer. I did not come of age with computers, but I picked up the skills I needed quickly. I was even writing blog posts in the OG classic editor back then.
However, writing was such a personal act for me, and the keyboard and screen felt impersonal. A 30-page ethnographic paper on modern literacy changed my view on the matter. Since then, I have not looked back.
If you are concerned that I will say that you are stuck in the past, that is not the case. The tools we use can be a great comfort to us. I would not tell a pianist not to compose their next piece on the old church piano they have played since childhood. That may be one source of their inspiration, likewise, for someone’s favorite writing software.
What I have learned is to try out new things once in a while. I am very much the type of person who gets stuck using the tools that I am comfortable with, so I remind myself to mix it up from time to time.
The classic WordPress editor and I never clicked. Eventually, I learned to write in Markdown and port those posts to the WordPress editor. Mark Jaquith’s Markdown on Save plugin was a godsend for many years. Eventually, I switched to Jetpack’s Markdown module. Today, the block editor converts my preferred writing format to blocks automatically as I paste it in.
As much as I love the block editor, I rarely use it during the drafting process. I am literally writing this post in Atom.
Atom is known more for being a code editor, but its packages come in handy for Markdown enthusiasts. I also like using something with quick folder access for traversing through various ongoing stories and projects. I use a simple “bucket” system for working, published, and trashed posts to organize everything. Once I finish drafting and running the first edit, I copy and paste the text directly into the WordPress editor. Then, I dive into the final editing rounds. This is where WordPress becomes far more beneficial to my flow. I can make adjustments that I did not see in plainer text format, and dropping in media is simple.
I am sure many people would dislike my choice of writing tools or my workflow. Some people enjoy writing in Microsoft Word — really, I have heard such people exist. Others publish via email, apps, or other computer programs.
Currently, I am giving Dabble a try during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I wrote via Atom the last time I participated in the writing challenge. However, the tool I enjoy most for writing blog posts offers a sub-par experience for something as complex as a 50,000-word manuscript.
Dabble is a platform specifically built for writing books. I wish it was open-source, but it is hard to come by equivalent software without restrictive licensing. Nevertheless, it does its job and sticks in its lane. It also does not hurt that it updates word counts through the NaNoWriMo API.
Thus far, I am loving the Dabble experience. It is also imperative that those who work on the WordPress platform step outside our bubbles and try related software. We should learn and grow from it. Then, bring those experiences back into the WordPress fold.
I cannot imagine writing a novel in WordPress without first creating a plugin that added the extra bits, such as scene and character cards, and cut away almost everything else. The editing canvas might be acceptable with the right style adjustments. Note: if anyone wants to build this, I would be happy to offer direct feedback.
WordPress may never be the ideal writing experience for all people. However, it should always offer a pathway toward publishing, regardless of what tools its users prefer.
It should also continue striving to create a more well-rounded writing experience. Besides a few oddities, the block editor seems to be on this path. Every now and again, I write a post in it. It is part of my promise to step outside my comfort zone. Each time, the experience is better. It continues to be in that “sort of good” zone, and I am OK with that. WordPress is making progress.
Continue the conversation. This post builds on the following articles:
I can understand your point of view. I do not really work in Classic Editor, I work in HTML mode, in Markdown, with an external editor (Caret). What I type in Caret is automatically added in WP editor through withExEditor plugin for Chrome.
Lately I’ve been using pen on paper right in my journal for a first draft. If I start digitally I’ll use markdown in Obsidian. 😀
I use Ulysses for writing all of my blog posts. I love blocks for building and designing WordPress sites, but not for uninterrupted and freeflow writing.
I often start in Google Docs or MS Word (depending on if I’m writing for a personal project or for my day job). Then I’ll paste everything into Gutenberg or classic editor depending on the site. Doing so never works seamlessly, and I’m always manually fixing tags. But in doing so I catch stuff and correct it inline. By the time everything is copy pasted over, it’s basically a 2nd revision.
If formatted copy paste from MS Word or Google Docs to Gutenberg ever works as well as it probably should, I might start publishing first drafts. 🙂
Same here. I use also en editor, Notepad++ in my case for doing the draft. It is faster and allows quick corrections.
If I have to write longer posted than 4,000 words, I break it into parts. For clients, I’ve found that due to some hosting environments and their limits, that trying to save 10K words on any post type causes error or the spinner just keeps spinning. I’ve not had this happen in Drupal as much, but for longer format. Interestingly, if I write a 10K+ chapter on FanfictionORG, then there’s never a problem saving there.
Additionally, WordPress has a long way to go. It’s not entirely web accessible. However, we’re lucky to have so many thoughtful developers that give alternate ways we can choose to use the editor while writing content. A note – While most of my other newer sites use Gutenberg, my clients prefer Classic Editor, and I use the plain text (and have for many years) on my main website. For clients I write for, I write on Google Docs and send for them to edit, and then copy/paste into the WordPress editor.
I use a local installed WP, writing my long posts and then import it, never failed me.
I set up a Scrivener template that I use for WordPress. That way I can write uninhibited, plus I have a complete content backup of all of my posts in text form. Previously, I did all of my posts in Simplenote, which I still use for free-handing or if I’m typing on mobile.
I used to like Scrivener until I switched to a new laptop with a 4K screen. IIRC, the icons were either too fuzzy or too small. I’ve been meaning to test it out again to see if it has improved. It’s been a while now.
I am using a VSCode setup similar to that documented here: Creating a VSCode Second Brain . I wish I could setup something like this on a local WordPress site (database… content model… Notion-like plugin… would be great!). So I have all these personal knowledge base features, and put the files in Dropbox so I have them anywhere as simple markdown files. For writing a novel or research manuscript, the open source Zettlr editor can join together a directory of markdown files into a single document, for example. But I do wish I could do it in the WordPress editor, together with some kind of content model plugin (Either toolset (proprietary) or Pods (coming along with blocks integration and open source). Also, a version control system for writers to navigate different versions in markdown, plus something like a submission tracking plugin would be heaven… on WordPress. Why? Because I can keep all my stuff and build on the community and not alone. I dream of a WordPress that gains a consciousness of being a web application platform, not a blogging tool. However I do understand that the current effort is to democratize layout, ui and design.
Block editor: as of May 2021, only site and template editors managed to get IFRAME-d, see by @ellatrix
Until post editor gets IFRAME-d and properly isolated from wp-admin, some advanced design systems, such as based on web components, have great trouble getting loaded in post editor, as they would need extra setup and modification just to avoid touching wp-admin chrome.
None of our clients use the block editor. Since blocks became mandatory, they add one classic block and start from there.
Everyone has their own favourite tool for writing, and there’s not necessarily a need to change it. If you prefer to write in Google Docs and then copy and paste into WordPress, and any negative aspect of doing so (formatting etc.) is less of a problem than simply writing in the Gutenberg editor, then all power to you.
I agree that neither the old editor nor the more recent version are perfectly-tailored for long-form writing. Writing-specific apps, which have a very narrow focus and feature sets, are much more likely to provide a better environment for the one task they’re designed for.
However, one of WordPress’s strengths has always been that if you want it to work in a specific way for you, you can install a plugin to achieve that. The Gutenberg editor makes that way more possible than with the “classic editor”. I’ve used the editor in WordPress since its first version to blog, both short- and long-form, and the “classic editor” was always a pain to work with. There was no possibility to move paragraphs around inside the text, and God forbid that you wanted to add a couple of images in an appealing column layout.
If I were going to run a site where pure writing were the focus, then the Iceberg plugin looks like the leading contender to me.
Everyone has their own preferred workflow, and that’s great. For me, writing inside WordPress just has never been a comfortable experience.
If I’m writing for the web, I’ll start in MS Word (yeah, I’m one of those people). From there, I convert it to HTML in Dreamweaver (I’m one of them as well), then copy & paste code into WP.
It would probably drive some people crazy to work that way. But the point is we all have our little quirks. If something works for you, then there’s no reason not to do it.
But you’re right, Justin. It’s also good to step out of the comfort zone sometimes. You might find a new favorite tool for writing.
Dreamweaver is still a thing? 🙂
Free with your expensive Creative Cloud subscription!
I mean, if we are being honest about real world usage …
My clients either write posts of a single paragraph interspersed with random H1 links tinted red, “Our new premises will open on monday … lorem ipsem … (h1)CLICK THIS LINK FOR MAP(h1) Lorem ipsem”
Or the other option is a massive multi-page formatted up PDF document with some care taken over it. This PDF file is added to a WP post with the above strategy, except the h1 link reads “DOWNLOAD LATEST NEWS” + “sign up for our newsletter”.
This seems to be the strategy of most companies I work for.
None of them want to do that layout on the website. When I ask, they always say “Noooo”, the current system is quick and known. The WP alternative is less good than what they have in place.
I rarely write directly in WordPress for a lot of the reasons stated by others. I work in MS Word so I can focus on my writing, not formatting and blocks, etc. It allows me to focus on my words. Only when that is ready do I paste it into WordPress.
Interestingly I never really thought about it until this post. A long, long time ago (maybe WordPress 2.x era?) I used a desktop app that would connect to the WP API. Nowadays I usually write in Google docs. Not because I don’t like WP’s editor, but because by by using Google docs I can work on it a little during my lunch break at work, or on my phone while in line at the store, or when in the car waiting to pick up my kids. Then I just copy/paste into Gutenberg and it usually preserves all the things I care about – bold, italics, links, headers.
If I’m at home and I think I can whatever I’m writing in one shot, then I’ll just use Gutenberg.
I guess it comes down to what you’re doing.
Classic Block is overlooked too often. I’ll bet half those Classic Editor plugin installations could be ditched if more people just knew about this block. For a simple site, I avoid WordPress altogether and use VSCode with markdown files rendering a second column preview and one-click publishing via a button that triggers rsync. I like Evernote for business notes and .docx files in folders for personal notes.
It will be neat to see what plugin developers come up with for pure writers in the Gutenberg era. A writing block that goes distraction-free could be as good as any app out there.
When I started, I used the Classic Editor. I then used Windows Live Writer until Microsoft abandoned it, then onto Open Live Writer, but found every post edit saved another copy of any images in the post. I have used Microsoft Word, but am now using the Block Editor. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.
I work with a technical writer(who also writes novels) who has these very same pain points listed:
Gutenberg not ideal for tech writers, feels more like a designer tool
Missing writing formats i.e., paragraph indent, toggles, notes, tips, etc.
Mainly we use WordPress to publish help sites for our applications and her preferred authoring tool is actually Madcap Flare, not sure what she uses for drafts. Flare is more of a component content management system (CCMS) –
Many of the writing strategies here seem to paste their copyright into WP
and then touch up with layout/design. Reassuring to hear that.
I’m still shocked that a relative WYSIWYG editor isn’t the defacto standard for WordPress. Surely we have the technology to be able to fit type to the character in a layout that looks like a live page in any screen format. Until we have that, it seems like WordPress is faking it with blocks and missing the target entirely with the Classic Editor.
Lately, I have been using the Grammarly Editor or MS Word with Grammarly.
Would like to pick your brain regarding what you would want from writing software. Considering writing a web based system for our technical specs and user docs. I am imagining emacs(lite)/org + git + database. But I dont write enough to make it useful to others as well.
Markdown support is generally something I like, but it is not a hard rule. More than anything, I typically have multiple articles at various stages of progress. I like to quickly jump between them if I need to make a note without having to reload a page. Syncing/Backing up online (particularly with GitHub) would be nice. Using my personal “bucket” system described above too (customizable folders).
I’d be happy to chat. Feel free to shoot me an email through the contact form or @greenshady on WordPress Slack.
Note: if anyone wants to build this, I would be happy to offer direct feedback.
Ha, you may get your chance to make good on this offer! I’m coming at it sort of backwards, in that I’ve build (and continue to build) WordPress tools to create book+ experiences in WordPress. Since you have to enter the stuff into WP to get the book actually there, I’ve started to think about what it would take to create a professional writer experience within WordPress, some sort of mixup of Word features, Dabble, Draft, and Scrivener… not working on it yet, but thinking about it in a fairly detailed way at this point.
Anyway, agree that WP blocks are more of a designer thing, for sure. If you’re writing something complex and long, you need ways to keep an eye on the overall structure and the option to drop to a completely distraction-free immediate writing experience.
Appreciate the post!
I’m always open to give feedback. I’ve used both Dabble and Scrivener and think they are pretty solid tools, so if you’re looking at them, I imagine you are already on the right track.
I’ve also written books via specific tech-book templates in Microsoft Word. I have nothing but disdain for the experience both times. So, I can probably tell you some things to definitely not do. 🙂
One of the key things missing from WP is it being more like a single-page app where you can move between chapters and scenes or pulling up things like character cards without page reloads. If you’re a writer who keeps a lot of your notes digitally, you’d want quick access to those through some sort of sidebar/folder feature.
Anyway, we can definitely get into the details any time you want.
The first time I tried the Block Editor, I was … gosh this looks like a broken Page Maker or Quark Xpress. Writing and Layout-ing is equally easy.
Even thought sending them email to go check Desk Top Publishing (DTP) products for ideas and to see how is done.
It is 20 years old technology.
I don’t write as much as I’d like but for me, Apple Pages and Google Docs are two great “no pressure” ways to get thoughts out of my head.
I also love markdown since I’ve gotten used to it on GitHub. For writing I’ve been using Focused app on macOS lately and it’s been great.
I use Classic block or Classic editor. Sometimes Google Docs and paste.
Rightly said, and well explained. I too use code editor to write all content and later I just copy paste everything in to the WordPress editor. Later I do small correction on editor wherever needed. I too think all the time why WordPress don’t just make things easier for us so we can avoid that double work.
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