Teach yourself to Troubleshoot

Teach Yourself to Troubleshoot

Ever learn to drive a stick shift? If so, you probably didn’t learn just by watching your instructor do it. All the watching in the world can’t teach a foot to feel the perfect moment to ease off the clutch and give it a little gas.

We learn by doing. How many times did the car lurch, stall, and make hideous screeching noises before you mastered transitions between gears?

We learn by doing things wrong. So it is with making stuff with WordPress. The only way to learn is to try things, break things, and fix them again.

Maybe you’re not afraid to try things and break things, but you have no clue how to fix them again. Or maybe your experience level doesn’t offer you any context for troubleshooting WordPress problems and you feel frustrated and stuck.

I’m Going to Tell You My Secrets

Last week one of my readers sent this email:

Your site helps me learn what I’m doing, rather than just telling me what to do.

It made my day. In the spirit of teaching and not just telling, I’m going to share with you my troubleshooting techniques when I run into a WordPress problem.

Secret #1: The Heartache Saver

peyton-manning-oh-shit-faceThe first time I got the dreaded white screen of death, I panicked. Heart racing, potty-word repeating, and mouse-click regretting.

Know the feeling?

Here’s how to avoid it:

Don’t experiment on a live site. Period.

There’s actually a Proverb from scripture that says:

She is a fool who takes a code snippet off the interwebs, drops it in a live site’s functions file, and clicks Save.

Workflow Tips:

  • Use a syntax-highlighting text editor (such as Notepad++ for Windows or Sublime Text for Mac) to edit code.
  • Manually upload edited files to the server via your FTP client of choice.

If you get the WSOD, you can use the undo command of your text editor to revert your file and re-upload it. If that doesn’t work, try this. Once your site is working normally again, continue your file editing and use syntax highlighting to help you troubleshoot your error.

Secret #2: The Google Machine

I like to fancy myself special, but fact is I’m normal (mostly). That means whatever pickle I’ve gotten myself into with my WordPress site, that problem is not uncommon.

Embrace your common side:

Accept that there’s a 99% chance other WordPressers who’ve gone before you have had the problem you’re experiencing, asked for help online, and received an answer. Your job is to track that answer down.

Workflow Tips:

  • First, here are some insider Google Search Tricks to help you become a better answer finder.
  • When Googling your problem, if you get irrelevant results, try re-phrasing your search. You may be calling something a doodad instead of a dingleburr and getting wrong results. Use (incorrect) search results as a way to increase your technical vocabulary and refine your search skills.
  • Beyond Google, don’t forget to check WordPress Stack Exchange, the WordPress Support Forums, or the private support forum (if you’re using a paid product).

Only after you’ve given it a diligent, solid effort (which takes more than 15 minutes), can I show my last secret…

Secret #3: How to Get Answers

I’m listening to Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership, a fantastic read for any entrepreneur aspiring to good leadership (or vice versa). In one chapter he discusses the process of training his team members to “think like him” so that over time they could problem-solve like he did but without requiring his intervention.

Dave Ramsey’s process in a time-elapsed nutshell:

  1. First time a team member comes to him with a problem, together they come up with three possible solutions, and decide on a best course of action.
  2. Team member comes to him with a problem and three possible solutions. Together they decide on best course of action.
  3. Team member comes to him with the problem, possible solutions, and the recommended course of action to take.
  4. Team member emails him a summary of problem, the solution, and the outcome.

Learning how to effectively problem solve is empowering! But how do you ask questions in a way that gets the best answer?

Workflow Tips:

  • Work to narrow down the source of the problem (Did the problem occur when you installed a theme? When you updated a plugin?).
  • Based on the answer above, consider the best place to ask your question. Asking a theme-specific question on a generic WordPress forum won’t gain much for you. Ask your question in the forum most closely-related to your problem.

When you finally ask your question, make sure it has these elements:

1. A description of the problem, in context:

Bad: This plugin doesn’t work.

Good: I’m running WordPress 3.8.1 and the Genesis Framework 2.0.2 (latest version). All my plugins are up to date. When I installed your plugin, my sidebar layout went to pot and I get the following error message in my admin dashboard: “[insert error message]”

2. What troubleshooting steps you’ve already tried:

Bad: Help me!!!

Good: I deactivated all the plugins and that solved the problem! I re-activated plugins one at a time until I found the conflict – it seems that your plugin and X don’t play nicely together. I did some Googling and it looks like this is a known issue

3. Finally, the ask:

Bad: I have a project due tomorrow! Can you please suggest a fix!

Good: I would love to use your plugin for a project I’m working on. Can you recommend a work-around or hack for the time being?

Ready to go fixing your own problems?

Instead of telling you the answers, my goal is to help you learn to find the answers. Trust me, the first time you figure something out for yourself and fix it, you’ll dance a jig.


10 thoughts on “Teach Yourself to Troubleshoot”

  1. Thanks for this helpful post.

    re: Tip #1, I set up local folders for each site I manage. I download via ftp the file I’m about to work on, work on a copy of it then upload that. This way I have an original if client doesn’t like what I’ve done. I like your way for short term testing. I’ll be doing this also.

    1. Great point and thanks for bringing it up! I’d meant to mention backups and totally forgot to…Everything I work on also has an archive (either via ManageWP, BackupBuddy, or – at a minimum – a copy of the database and theme folder) as a safe stash. Never hurts to have. 🙂

  2. I’ve always told people test is test and production is production. There is a reason why you need to have both. Plus, I don’t want to mess with a visitors experience if I’m making changes “Live”.

    I need to setup a local install of WP though instead of using the host and a test site. Better security and I can see my changes quicker. Plus how much I’d save on resources/bandwidth etc.!

    I especially love the Google search tips! Google has been a pita when it comes to searching for answers to WP issues lately.

  3. Great post Carrie! I love your point about narrowing down the root cause of the problem in the first place. And may I add that the support in the StudioPress Community forum is above par!
    I love Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership( the book and the podcast) and so happy you mentioned it here. Reading that book( and Jon Acuff’s Quitter) gave me the courage to branch out on my own and leave the corporate workplace behind. I have tried WordPress Stack Exchange in the past and it seemed a bit confusing to me to be honest, but that was a while back when I didnt know what I was doing so I will have to check it out again. Thank you for what you do.

    1. Hey Chrissy,
      I’ve heard great things about Quitter and plan to read that soon, too. You’re right about Stack Exchange – you have to wade through a lot of bad answers to get to a good one, so just keep your eyes peeled for the green checkmark (signifying “best answer”) and ignore the rest. 🙂


  4. Thanks again Carrie for a great read. You are definitely my go-to girl for Genesis tips and advice.

    I’m really loving the way you break it all down for us.

    Keep it coming! 🙂

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