Early in February of this year I submitted my first WordPress theme, called Dorian, to the WordPress.org Themes Repository.

Later the same month, I was contacted by a WordPress.org theme reviewer and after fixing a couple of small bugs, my theme got quickly approved.

Being quite in the dark as to what would happen next, day after day, I anxiously waited to see my theme go out into the wild. Finally, by March 29th my theme was live on the WP.org repo.

If you’re curious to know the steps for submitting your theme to the repository, and also would like to have some clue as to what to expect afterwards, you can do one or both of the following:

pluck up your courage and become a theme reviewer yourself;
read this post 🙂

What to Look for when Building your Theme
WP.org subjects each theme to a long series of Requirements as well as Recommendations.

The requirements are strictly enforced during the review process and if your theme doesn’t meet them, it won’t be accepted in the repository.

It sounds harsh, but really, it isn’t. Free doesn’t mean cheap, and the requirements are there to guarantee a high standard of quality for all WordPress.org theme users.

Theme authors are encouraged to resubmit their item several times until either the item meets all requirements and is therefore approved, or keeps presenting the same issues and is therefore marked as not approved.

However, I must say, reviewers are extremely patient with authors. In fact, tickets are left open for a number of days (it should be seven days, but in my experience this deadline is not seriously enforced) to leave authors all the time they need to make the suggested changes and resubmit their theme.

Recommendations are guidelines only and not strictly enforced. This means that, if a theme author insists on not complying with them, non compliance cannot constitute grounds for rejecting the theme. Recommendations are in place to enhance, and or standardize, some aspects of the theme design and code, e.g., preferring the use of those core WordPress functionality and features that are not required rather than coding one’s own solution, using good design practices, etc.

Do I Have to Learn All the Requirements and Recommendations?
You don’t need to learn all the rules and guidelines by heart before coding your first WordPress theme.

Get your development environment ready by doing the following:

set up a local WordPress installation;
import the Theme Unit Test data. This data fills up your local WP install with all sorts of content. This gives developers a real sense of what their theme looks like with real content. Besides, this is what the WordPress.org Theme Review Team uses for testing;
set up WP_DEBUG to true in the wp-config.php file. This ensures that if you make coding mistakes while developing, these are displayed on the page, giving you the chance promptly to fix them;
install the Developer plugin. This is several essential and useful plugins for theme development bundled into one.
Next, go over the requirements a couple of times and keep them in front of you as you code your theme. If anything in the guidelines is not clear, pop over to Slack by signing in with your WordPress.org user account and ask away.

It’s been my experience that there’ll be something that escapes your notice, gets misunderstood, or forgotten as you code away, especially if it’s your first theme, and/or you’ve never reviewed a theme before.

As you build themes, and also as you engage in reviewing themes for the repository, your familiarity with what’s required, and also recommended, will grow with your development skills, and so will the quality and safety of your themes.

That said, ambiguous and/or controversial points concerning what’s required and what’s recommended, keep coming up in frequent discussions among the reviewers, even the top reviewers.

Just do your best, and if you’ve left stuff out or done stuff the wrong way, the reviewer will point that out. Just fix what needs to be fixed and you’ll be fine.

Time to Upload
Once you finish coding your theme, you really need to do the following:

check what the theme looks like across different devices and screen sizes. A great tool for this is the device emulator that comes with Google Chrome’s Developer Tools;
test the theme’s functionality and features;
run your theme through the Theme Check plugin (also bundled with the Developer plugin);
validate your theme’s HTML and CSS, and make sure the JavaScript code doesn’t throw any errors;
go through the requirements and recommendations against your finished theme one last time.
All of the above done, zip up your item and head over to the Upload page.

The rest is simple: browse your computer’s directory and select your theme’s folder, then click upload.

Congratulations! Now the waiting begins.

Behind the Scenes of the Review Process
What happens after your theme is uploaded to the WordPress.org repository is sketchily outlined in the Theme Review Handbook, one more awesome resource that the team behind the repository have been gradually putting together.

In the Theme Review Process section of the Handbook, you learn that your theme gets assigned to the new themes queue. This page lists all tickets containing newly uploaded themes.

After some time, a reviewer eventually picks up your theme for review. You’ll get an email alerting you that a comment has been left by the reviewer.

Answer the comment within seven days and submit the required changes. If the reviewer comes back to you with more issues that need fixing, keep fixing them.

When all issues are fixed and the reviewer is satisfied that your theme meets all requirements, the reviewer approves the theme.

Congratulations! Now the waiting for your theme’s release begins.

My Theme has been Approved but Why isn’t It Live Yet?
Based on my experiences with premium theme marketplaces, I expected my WordPress.org theme to be live soon after its approval. How wrong I was!

In fact, as the Theme Review Process section of the Handbook makes clear, the ticket containing your newly approved theme gets appended to a different queue. It stays there until an admin team member or a key reviewer thoroughly re-examines each approved theme. If no issues are found, the theme goes live, otherwise the ticket is re-opened and the issues-fixing process starts again.

This double-checking is priceless in terms of quality assurance, but it’s also, in my view, one of the reasons why it takes so long for a theme to go live. Going through the approved but not yet live themes queue, it soon becomes apparent how long it might take for a theme to see the light on the WP.org website. Some tickets have been there for five-six weeks.

Why all the waiting?

What are the Stumbling Blocks to a Speedy Review Process?
About time frames, the Theme Review Process section of the Theme Review Handbook says:

There are no exact time frames for the queues. In short, the more people we have reviewing, the shorter the queues …

Allocated tickets without a response from either the theme author or reviewer within 7 days will be closed or reallocated to a new reviewer. Even if you just update to say you will be unable to take action for a few days, it’s important to keep communicating in tickets.

On the basis of the above, it looks as though the two factors affecting review time frame are number of reviewers, that is, the more the merrier, and unanswered tickets, that is, tickets that have gone without a word from either the theme author or the reviewer.

Although I spent just a little time inside the theme review team, and am far from having the kind of experience and know-how of some of the great guys and girls in there, I had enough time to form a preliminary view of how things stand on a few points at least.

In my strictly personal opinion, there’s a problem with the way new reviewers are recruited as well as with some aspects of the themes submission process. Let’s start with the problem about new reviewers.

Increasing the number of reviewers only helps if the reviewers are comfortable with the guidelines and have some experience with WordPress theme development.

At the moment no process seems to be in place to ensure that this is the case. Here’s why.

Becoming a Reviewer
The steps to start reviewing your first WP.org theme are frightfully easy. Simply click the Request a theme to review button at the top left of the WP.org website theme review pages, and you’re immediately the proud owner of a new theme to review.

From that moment on, the floor is yours!

To be sure, the process has a mentorship program in place that can be quite attractive to budding reviewers. The Handbook claims that …

Once you get a theme you will also be assigned a mentor to help you through the initial stages of theme reviewing.

In actual fact, this is not often what happens. In my experience, mentors are not being allocated automatically. I even asked for one in the Theme Review area in Slack where theme review team members chat and collaborate.

Although I didn’t get a mentor, I got plenty of support from the experienced reviewers and admin members who most of the times are on Slack.

Also, in all fairness to the team, admin members and key reviewers keep an eye on tickets undergoing review: they immediately put a stop to any foul play, and leave their comments on new reviewers’ tickets if they think they can improve on the review process.

However, on the whole, I feel that the entry barrier to becoming a reviewer is too low, the bulk of work on mentors is excessive and therefore a significant number of new reviewers are left without one.

This state of affairs, in my view (again), leads to at least the following problems:

Some new reviewers can feel overwhelmed and abandon their reviews half-way through, or even at the very beginning. I’ve witnessed cases of some reviewers who, in good or in bad faith, leave a swift comment on the ticket and mark the theme as not approved right away. This partly leads to a great number of abandoned tickets for which new reviewers need to be found;
Some reviews that new reviewers eventually complete, can be lacking in quality or thoroughness;
the more tickets containing badly reviewed themes get appended to the approved but not yet live themes queue, the more time it’ll take key reviewers or admin members to make the final review before the theme goes live.
Becoming a Theme Author
The second problem lies with the theme submission process.

Just as becoming a new theme reviewer is tremendously easy so is becoming a theme author on WordPress.org, and I’m not talking about quality assurance. The latter is top notch on the repo!

Rather, I’m talking about the enormous patience and perseverance the Theme Review Team members show towards all authors, no matter how some authors probably haven’t worked enough on their WP theme building skills, no matter how much some flout the submission guidelines, no matter how much time some take to answer tickets, etc.

My curiosity, as well as my eagerness to learn good reviewing skills, brought me at one time to browse through some tickets. Here are some amazing cases.

Reviewers, even admin members, pointing out mistakes in the theme’s code and what to do to fix them, but the author resubmitting the item over and over without fixing the issues.
Theme authors not replying to reviewers’ comments for weeks on end.
Themes coded using bits and pieces from other themes without giving due credit to their source. Quite a significant number of submitted themes even kept the texdomain from the original theme used as ‘inspiration’. There have also been cases of cloned themes, that is, theme authors didn’t even bother to change the theme name and screenshot from someone else’s theme when passing it as their own. All this in the name of Open source!
The least I can say about all this is that’s likely to cause some serious waste of time, committed reviewers’ as much as committed theme authors’.

My experience as WP.org theme reviewer was extremely brief because of some family matters that got in the way. However, I loved the climate of co-operation among all team members and the dedication that all those seriously committed to the WordPress community show on a daily basis – I hope I pick up reviewing themes again as soon as things go back to normal on my end.

To Sum Up
The WordPress.org themes repo is a great place to get free, safe, quality themes for your WP site. The key people behind the themes review process are dedicated and awesome professionals, all volunteering their precious time so that everybody can enjoy such a fantastic platform as WordPress around the world.

There are, however, some issues with the time it takes for a theme to go from being uploaded to being launched live on the repository.

Here, I’ve outlined what I consider two main concerns: the low entry barrier to becoming a reviewer as well as to submitting a theme as author.

What could be done to mitigate either or both? I don’t know, really. Perhaps getting more experts interested in the mentorship program. Perhaps building and making available awesome documentation and resources like the Handbook to help new reviewers. Perhaps getting ruthless in weeding out both new reviewers and theme authors who are not prepared to put in the necessary effort.

The latter suggestion sounds extreme indeed. I think, however, that the presence of some cowboy reviewers/theme authors does somehow negatively affect both the theme submission experience for the serious author and the morale of the committed new reviewer.

But there’s no process that can automate or successfully police what ultimately comes down to taking personal responsibility for one’s actions.


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