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Technical Penguins Guide to the WordPress Gutenberg Editor: A photo of a printing plate, with letters typeset, sitting on a press.
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The WordPress Gutenberg Editor: What it is and why you should care

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Executive Summary

The WordPress Gutenberg editor, a complete reimagining of the post-editing workflow, is currently on track to roll out as early as January 2018, and may mean some significant changes. Here’s how to make sure you’re ready.

Details

Probably the biggest news about WordPress in the last few months has been around the Gutenberg editor. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it — discussion has largely been confined to developers and theme creators. That’s a shame, though because the introduction of Gutenberg will definitely change the way you work with WordPress. The biggest question we have right now is how many of the things we use every day in WordPress are going to break when they push the update.

So what do you need to know about Gutenberg? Well, let’s start with post editing. We’ll do our best to keep this short! The standard WordPress editor looks like this:

Technical Penguins Guide to the WordPress Gutenberg Editor: A screenshot of the 2017 post editor in WordPress. It consists of a text box with a toolbar over the top of it with different formatting options.

There’s one content area. You type your post into it. Anything fancier or different is accomplished via meta boxes (which are basically everything on the post screen that’s not the editor, so your fields for Yoast SEO, Social Warfare, grid layouts, script insertions, or even where the featured image goes), via the inclusion of shortcodes, or via whole-editor replacements like Divi, Beaver Builder, Thrive, etc.

Technical Penguins Guide to the WordPress Gutenberg editor: A screenshot of what the new Gutenberg editor is proposed to look like. It's largely a white input area, with some formatting on the right side.

The new version starts you with a larger content area, one that fills nearly the entire screen. Rather than typing your whole post into that content area, you’d first create a text block. Then you’d start typing.

You could also create an image block, and move it above or below the text. If you wanted to insert your image block in the middle of that text, you’d split the text block into two blocks, and drag the image block between them.

In addition to an image block, you can also use a table block, a “live HTML” block, a blockquote block, and others.

For those accustomed to builders like Divi, this might sound pretty familiar, and absolutely adds more features to the base WordPress experience.

But what about your theme and current plugins? Do they know how to handle those different blocks? Do they know how to integrate their features with that? That’s the question we don’t have an answer to yet (mostly because we still don’t know what all Gutenberg is doing, despite its release coming possibly as soon as two months from now).

And without judging whether, overall, this is a good idea or not, there are some worrisome indicators in how it has been developed.

What we’re watching for with the WordPress Gutenberg editor

The current plan is for the WordPress Gutenberg editor to be included by default in the WordPress 5.0 release, which is slated for early 2018.

The project has been fairly rushed, with large swaths of things still not figured out (like the aforementioned meta boxes), and the code still has not been finalized.

WordPress has assured the community at large that “every” plugin and theme will work, but not every theme and plugin actually works now with TinyMCE, and there’s just no way to guarantee something like that when you’re looking at as large and diverse an ecosystem as the WordPress community. Will Divi be able to work with the new block-level content elements as easily as paragraphs? Will you be able to see all of the content you put in the Thrive Editor when the update hits? We’re not saying the answer is “no,” we’re saying there’s no way to know right now.

A little bit of a soapbox here: Probably the single largest reason we recommend WordPress in so many different contexts is that people are already familiar and comfortable with it. We encourage people to use it because they know the basics and don’t have to be uncomfortable when creating their content. Again, not saying that the new version is easier or more difficult to use. It’s just different, and in this case it’s harming one of the major selling points of WordPress.

The project is definitely forward-looking, and while we’re going to reserve our opinion on the idea behind it until WordPress actually has a final product, we’re deeply concerned about how little effort and energy so far has been expended on ensuring backward compatibility. The best concession anyone’s given is that “for several versions” people will have the ability to use the WordPress editor the way they have been — though exactly how is (you guessed it) still up in the air.

Since we don’t currently know how all of this is shaking down, we have some advice.

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Tips, Recommendations & Takeaways

1. Keep an eye on things

The conversation and information dissemination about the WordPress Gutenberg editor is only going to get louder as the release date comes closer. Keep an eye not only on the editor itself, but also what the developers of your theme and plugins say. For example, we rely heavily on Advanced Custom Fields — we’re following the thread where the lead developer is keeping an eye on the situation.

2. Stay Gutenberg-free

Depending on a number of things, including how up-to-date all your plugins and themes are, how active their developers are and how customized you have everything, there are some options for making sure you don’t get dropped in the Gutenberg editor unexpectedly. There are already plugins that will make sure Gutenberg is not the default post editor, and we’re hoping that will be enough for most people.

If you’re really concerned (or have an issue like the ones mentioned above, where your theme developer hasn’t updated in years and may not be doing that anymore), the more drastic step you can take is to prevent automatic updates. You would not need to do this yet, but once WordPress has a set date for when Gutenberg will be introduced into WordPress core, you can disable your updates before that happens. For security reasons, it’s not advisable to do that for long, but if you want to take the time to test things, that’s an option. That said, we would advise NOT doing this testing on your live site, which brings us to …

3. Test your site before you push live

Development sites are the way to go. Whether you set up a local instance that only you can see on your computer, or have a development server set up on the internet (that you can access but not the public at large), having a specific development instance allows you to see what changes are going to do before your readers have to see them.

Big Takeaway

Gutenberg is going to change WordPress in the near- and long-term. Make sure you’re keeping abreast of changes and ready for what’s coming down the pike.

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