Building the Long Form Storybuilder

The idea for the Long Form Storybuilder came about as a way to develop a re-usable solution to the problem of user-created long-format content. Since long form content is, by its nature, media-rich and composed of relatively complex layouts, setting it up usually requires a good amount of development knowledge. We wanted to give users a way to create beautiful, engaging stories without having to worry about html or cumbersome shortcodes.

The beginning of a long road

Initially, our idea was to develop an entire custom solution that would live on WordPress’s front-end as a JavaScript app. However, as the development progressed, it became very clear that building and maintaining an entire custom JavaScript app was going to be difficult and cumbersome at best. On top of that, the entire interface started feeling very non-WordPress, which we realized was rather counter-intuitive when attempting to provide WordPress users an intuitive publishing platform.

This is when we decided to pivot and begin building the plugin on the WordPress Customizer. This was really an unexpected, rather accidental surprise. We were working with the Customizer on a theme build, adding and re-arranging widgets, when it hit us — here was a native WordPress tool that was accomplishing so much of what we wanted. Live updates, portability, simple adding and removing of sections. The more we looked into it, the more tailor-made for our solution it became.

Working through challenges

One of the biggest challenges in working with the Customizer (especially when extending the Widget panel as we are) was the fact that it’s tied directly to the current, active theme. So any time you switched themes, you would lose all of your LFC modules and data. Thankfully, one of our particularly brilliant developers devised a way to maintain the Long Form Storybuilder data during theme changes. Another issue was the fact that if you disabled our plugin (gasp!), you’d lose all of your carefully-composed content. Once again, we were able to find a solution that actually had two advantages — your content stayed with you after you disabled the plugin and your posts showed up much more reliably in search results as well.

Another issue was that the Customizer is essentially the Wild West at this point. It’s only been around for the last few versions of WordPress, meaning documentation on it is sparse-to-nonexistent. This meant that a lot of our time was spent digging through core files to figure out just how exactly it works. Of course, that has a side-benefit of teaching us a ton about WordPress and the Customizer, but it was difficult (and time-consuming), never-the-less.

Finding the time to build something awesome

The hardest part of developing a plugin like this is finding the time. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and with clients beckoning for your attention every workday, it’s immensely difficult to set aside the time it takes to get it done. On the plus side, however, it was so great knowing that (as long as it didn’t interfere with pressing client work), we could always work on the plugin during work hours. Having that time available made it a lot easer to actually keep going on the project and not just let it die.

We set out on building the long format plugin early 2014. It has been a fun, challenging, and exciting project: one that is truly a product of teamwork, collaboration, and the love of WordPress. We hope that you all enjoy the new Long Format Storybuilder plugin for WordPress as much as we do, and stay tuned for more long format updates. Download the Long Form Storybuilder here.