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Thoughts on Troubleshooting and Problem Solving

by Tom Johnson on Jan 19, 2009
categories: technical-writing wordpress

Utah mountains
Utah mountains

Working in technology, I spend a good amount of my time troubleshooting. When things go wrong, I've learned a few tips and techniques:

  • Compare line by line against a working model
  • List all the components and how they work together
  • Challenge every assumption
  • Reboot or reinstall
  • Google the error messages you see
  • Site-search key sites
  • Come back to it later
  • Contact an expert
  • Post the question in a forum
  • Send the problem across Twitter

As today was MLK day and I had work off, I had a chance to dive into some WordPress projects on my to-do list. In prioritizing projects, I realized what I find so addictive about WordPress: the troubleshooting. When a project is easy, I find it boring. The challenges are what draw me. So I start with the most difficult first.

With WordPress problems, errors follow recurring patterns. If the alignment is completely wonky, it's usually a div tag problem. If you receive sudden fatal errors that break the display, start deactivating plugins one by one. Is your cursor acting funny? Clear your browser's cache or upgrade to the latest version of WordPress. Is there a problem with links not connecting to posts or pages? Check out the .htaccess file. If it's a CSS problem, e.g., can't figure out the style, and viewing the source code doesn't work, I sometimes perform CSS brain surgery, chopping large parts of CSS code displayed with the Firefox CSS Web Developer extension until I find the controlling style.

I also find it fulfilling to solve other people's problems, even if they're easy. For example, a client called explaining a need to include a LinkedIn-Share-This type button below the post. I did some digging (on a LinkedIn network) to find the right plugin, and then implemented the plugin on the phone with the client. That was pretty cool.

In fact, I changed my WordPress training model to specifically address problems people are having (rather than giving them a generic WordPress how-to). Most people reach out to me after they bang their heads in vain a few days. They don't want general information -- they want to fix their problems.

In writing about troubleshooting, I don't want to present myself as one without any technical problems. Like most people, I have a list of problems that I can't quite seem to conquer. But that's all right -- it gives me a puzzle to solve, and the puzzles engage me.

Do you have any troubleshooting tips of techniques that work well for you? Or, for the WordPress users out there, what's the most challenging problem you've faced, and how did you overcome it?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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