Justin Tadlock's cat

Welcome back to our interview section! This month, we’ve had the pleasure of talking to someone who you’ve probably already read some of his work: Justin Tadlock, @justintadlock, a developer, designer, writer at WordPress Tavern. He tells us what are the keys to being a good writer and it’s not exactly having a great muse to inspire us… and much more! Please welcome Justin Tadlock!

Thanks for the interview, Justin. It is a pleasure to have you here! For those who don’t know you, could you please introduce yourself?

Professionally, I am currently a full-time writer at WP Tavern and have been since late 2019. Before that, I ran a theme and plugin shop called Theme Hybrid for 11 years. It was, at the time, one of the oldest and longest-running shops in the WordPress ecosystem. In 2020, I published the second edition of Professional WordPress Plugin Development alongside my co-authors Brad Williams and John James Jacoby.

Outside of that, I am the proud dad to six cats. The oldest is 17, and the youngest is around 1. Each of them were adopted after not being able to find a home to place them in. Well, two of them were technically from a pregnant cat who was abandoned. They’ve been with me since they were born.

I am also an avid reader. I’m currently in my third year of a lifetime goal of reading something from a book every day. Whether it was a week with the flu or a two-day stomach virus, I have not let anything get in the way of this goal. Consistent reading is something I wish more people would do. Regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction, reading helps us grow. It is one of the best ways to break outside of our comfort zones, our bubbles, and explore ideas different from our own.

Justin, you have been a member and contributor to the WordPress Community since 2005… This is 16 years! Wow! What are you most proud of?

It is hard to pinpoint on particular thing in that time as something I am most proud of. It often changes as each year passes. The thing I am currently the most proud of is gaining the skills I needed to build a custom blogging system from scratch. While it is outside the scope of WordPress, the years I spent building for WordPress is what gave me the skills to make that leap.

With your experience, you have a very broad view of the evolution of WordPress. I’m not going to ask you how you envision WordPress to be in the next 16 years, but I will ask you: in the next three or four years, what do you think will be the most important changes we will see after Gutenberg from a user and development point of view?

I don’t see the Gutenberg project ending in three or four years. It is a multi-phase plan. We are not even at the halfway point yet. Phase 2, which is about site customization, is really just getting underway. This phase is probably the largest and will take at least another couple of years for the theme market to fully transition into.

The next phases are collaborative editing and multilingual support. In three or four years, I expect the project to be somewhere in the midst of those phases. I hope we are wrapping up the multilingual feature by that point.

These are not really my ideas. The Gutenberg roadmap, at least the big stops, are already planned out. But, I really see themes as being completely different than what they look like today. I have no idea how it will pan out. There are many ideas floating around right now.

You have also mentioned that you’ve co-written and already published the second edition of Professional WordPress Plugin Development. Writing a technical book on an ever-changing piece of software and more since the block editor came out seems to me a lot more work than what would normally go into a book update. Tell us a little bit more about such an experience and why you recommend buying the book.

The experience was definitely different this time around. For the first edition, I was young enough to write entire chapters the weekend before a deadline, pulling all-nighters just to get it done. Being a bit older this time and with full-time employment, I had to take a new approach. It meant sticking to a writing schedule and just knocking things out one word at a time.

I had also learned a lot about the writing process in 2018 when I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s a competition of sorts where people from all around the world write a 50,000-word draft of a novel. Finishing NaNoWriMo helped come to terms with what real writing is. It’s not some magical thing that happens. A muse doesn’t whisper great ideas into your ear. It is work. The only way to get it done is to simply do it. There are tricks and techniques to follow. Most of that is around scheduling, hitting daily word counts, time blocks, etc.

So, the second time around didn’t feel quite as crazy as the first time. It was more methodical and business-like for me. I believe this made for a much better book.

The bad thing was we waited around a decade to update the book. That wasn’t completely our fault. We wanted to update it a few years earlier, but the deal with the publisher fell through. Nevertheless, this meant that we had to practically rewrite the entire book.

Anyone looking to develop WordPress plugins in any professional capacity should pick up a copy. It is a good intro for those who are learning plugin dev for the first time. However, it also makes for a good reference manual for more seasoned developers to have handy on their desktop.

Related to the development of plugins, we have just launched a new one, Nelio Unlocker, to migrate any web page to the WordPress block editor without suffering the lock-in effect. To anyone who has a website built on a system other than WordPress or with a page builder, would you recommend switching to the block editor? Why?

Yes and no. Honestly, it depends on the specific person and project. For example, a few days ago, my cousin and his girlfriend asked about setting up a WordPress and WooCommerce shop for selling some handmade products. After going over the details of what they wanted to do and their financial reality, WordPress didn’t sound like the best fit, at least for the short term. My recommendation was to start with Etsy and build the business and brand. Also, grab the domain name for that time when it makes more sense to move forward. We talked about WordPress.com as an option, and that may be a part of the plan going forward too.

I realize your question was based more on the block editor. But, I just wanted to throw out an example of where I show that I don’t always recommend WordPress.

And, even when I do recommend WordPress or the block editor, it is always about sitting down with the person, getting to know what they want, and providing them options. While I am a fan of the block editor, it is not always the right direction for every person or site. The great thing about WordPress is that there are plenty of options out there.

I definitely recommend switching to the block editor in general. For newcomers, give it two or three weeks. It is rare that any tool will be a perfect match in a day or two. Ultimately, the block system is the future of WordPress. Feedback on what does or does not work today, helps steer the direction the project goes.

I love your “powered by heart and soul” writings on your blog and WordPress Tavern. The latter was created originally by Jeff Chandler in 2008 and purchased by Matt Mullenweg in 2011 (although it was not until 2013 when Matt informed us who the new owner was). In September 2019, you left your previous 11 year project, Theme Hybrid, and you took a full-time job at WP Taverns as a writer. Tell us, what is it like to write in WPTavern? Are there pressures to discuss or omit certain topics, or is there an independent editorial line?

WP Tavern writers are 100% independent. I have maybe checked in with Matt a dozen times since I began working there. Most of those times have been just letting him know when I would be taking a vacation or sick day. He takes a hands-off approach and allows us to explore what topics we choose (within the WordPress realm, of course).

I’m sure there will be some folks who don’t believe that. But, there is not much I can do about that belief. Our team will just keep trying to bring quality journalism to the WordPress community.

Working for WP Tavern has been one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. Like any job, there are good and bad days. There are times when pushing out a story every day feels like a grind, particularly when newsworthy items are few and far between. However, on the whole, it is pretty exciting work.

The toughest part is staying sane during the Covid era. It wasn’t long after taking the job before the pandemic began. It kind of dried up some of my outlets beyond the workplace. Without a good work-life balance, especially for those of us who work from home, some days or weeks can feel grueling. I feel like I’ve found a better balance since the early days, but there are still things I cannot get out and do like go to a movie theater. On the other hand, I now have my home theater set up. :)

One of your real dreams is being a novelist. In 2018 you won the National Novel Writing Month challenges consisting in writing 50,000 words toward a completed first draft in 30 days. Congratulations!! I would love to know more about this project. Could you tell us a little more about the novel? When can we read it? We are already impatient!

Being perfectly honest, the manuscript is sitting at just under 60,000 words — unfinished. I wouldn’t dare subject anyone to the mess of that story. Honestly, it is not a good read or something you could follow along with because I changed characters and backstories multiple times throughout the process. I jumped into another project not long after. Then, the opportunity to work on the second edition of Pro WP Plugin Dev ate up my time after that. So, it has been sitting around gathering dust for a while.

Winning NaNoWriMo was more about me learning who I was as a storyteller rather than the end result. It was also about learning the fundamentals of writing a novel-length work.

There are some misconceptions around writing being some type of magical thing that happens, ideas flowing down as gifts from the gods. The truth is that it is work. Novels — or any type of written work — happen one word at a time. You either start typing or you don’t.

I learned more about the act of writing from NaNoWriMo than any college course, YouTube video, or book on writing. Practicing the craft creates experience. No one can give that to you. It’s something you earn.

Now it’s time for our most-acclaimed question: sharing an epic fail of your past 😉 So please confess: where and how did you screw up?

I once locked myself out of my WordPress website when building a membership plugin. It was during the first beta phase of my Members plugin (I have since sold this). But, I was about a week away from launching this product and had to write a second plugin just to re-add permissions to my account and gain access to the WordPress admin. Fun times.

And finally, who else should we interview? Tell us what 3 WP professionals you’d like to see in the next interviews and why.

Carolina Nymark. I’ve known her for years via the WordPress Themes Team (theme reviews). We butted heads a lot when I was a part of the group, but I’ve always respected her opinions, even when disagreeing. Frankly, she was probably right more times than me (don’t tell her I said that). And, honestly, she’s one of the most knowledgeable theme devs out there.

I can’t think of any others that stand out any more than the rest. I don’t typically like to play favorites in my line of work either because it creates potential conflicts of interest. So, I’m just going to leave it at that.

Featured image of one of Justin’s six cats.

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