WordPress’ Gutenberg: A Practical Review
Shortly after I published my “WordPress is at a Crossroads” article, I had a stark realization: I had never really used Gutenberg.
Sure, I’d put it on a test site, clicked around, mocked up an article or two but I’d never actually written anything with it. I knew what it was about and what it did, but I knew nothing about what it did in practice.
So I set a simple goal for myself: To write a full-length post using Gutenberg.
That post was “5 Plagiarism Facts Students Should Know in 2018.” After finishing the post I disabled it and started writing a scathing review.
However, halfway through that review, I realized that the comparison was unfair. I was still learning Gutenberg and hadn’t really put its power features to work.
So, I kept at it, using Gutenberg on half a dozen posts and taking the opportunity to play with at least some of the more powerful features.
The result was something of a mixed bag. While I come away thinking that many of Gutenberg’s biggest detractors have misplaced their anger, I also fail to see how it’s the Medium/Squarespace killer that many are touting it as.
In the end, Gutenberg is simply mediocre. But, for an editor as important as it, mediocre is nowhere near good enough.
Installation and Setup
Though, on the surface, Gutenberg is just like any other plugin, it’s a slightly different experience when you have a site with 13 years of history and 4,300+ posts.
Stilll, I decided to brave it. I double checked that all of my various backups were up-to-date and, with fear in my eyes, clicked “Activate” on the plugin.
Much to my pleasure, everything actually worked fairly smoothly. All of my old posts were simply framed in a “Classic” block and required no editing or formatting from me. Even when I disabled Gutenberg after writing my first post, everything still went well. The post I’d written required no formatting to stay online.
There was a minor paragraph break issue when I re-actived Gutenberg to continue the test, but I’ve not checked and seen if that’s a problem in the latest version.
Still, Gutenberg, even in my relatively extreme use case, did not set my server on fire or send me racing to the backups. It worked well and the thought the team put into the transition does show.
What Gutenberg Gets Right
On the whole, block-based editors, like Gutenberg, Medium and Squarespace, are designed to let users create much more complex posts/pages with a much more simple interface.
In short, it’s supposed to allow users to do more with less.
Gutenberg gets half that equation right. There’s not much doubt that Gutenberg is a more powerful editor that allows you to do things not easily achieved with TinyMCE, the current WordPress editor. These include pullquotes, tables, columns (in beta), cover images, buttons, color options, position options and more.
There’s not much doubt that Gutenberg makes it possible to do more varied and more attractive posts, the problem is just about everything else.
Failing at Simplicity
While Gutenberg certainly allows you to do more with your posts, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier.
The easiest way to demonstrate this is to compare a simple task in both Medium and Gutenberg: Adding an image that’s aligned left.
In Medium, you create a new block with the return key, click the “+” icon and select add image. Then you upload your image, click the icon to make it flush left and then you’re done. Medium, resizes the image, positions it correctly and handles everything behind the scenes (Note: You can also drag/drop the image in but, since I usually edit in full screen, this is the way I’m most familiar with.)
In Gutenberg the process starts out similar. You add a new block, click the button to make it an image block, upload your image (or drag it in) and then select to align it to the left. Then you have everything look like hot garbage because Gutenberg doesn’t resize the image (see above), forcing you to select the size you want. However, even then the formatting is often wonky, with the image protruding above the surrounding text.
The Medium editor feels like an extension of my fingertips. I write, I format and I don’t think about it. Meanwhile, every action I have to take in Gutenberg feels like a wrestling match. This feeling didn’t go away as I spent six posts and over 5,000 words in the editor.
The Gutenberg editor has a great deal of power but that power comes at a stiff price: A fluid writing experience.
However, if there’s one thing that developers of Gutenberg have made clear, it’s they value design over writing.
Technical Issues, Missing Features
For serious writers, the bigger issue with Gutenberg won’t be what’s in it, but what’s not there.
Gutenberg, for whatever reason, does not include the After the Deadline plugin that’s part of Jetpack. This means there’s no built-in spelling/grammar checking other than what’s built into your browser. Gutenberg does work with the Grammarly browser extension, but only inelegantly.
Grammarly considers block a separate text box, meaning if you create a 25-paragraph post, you have 25 separate text boxes Grammarly is trying to check. This forced me to disable Grammarly on my site.
Gutenberg isn’t alone with this. Medium doesn’t have any included spelling/grammar checking and doesn’t work with Grammarly at all. But for writers who have come to rely on automated editing tools, Gutenberg is a step backward from TinyMCE.
But then there’s the issue of pure speed. While I hate to harp on the efficiency of what is still a beta product, Gutengberg was simply much slower than either TinyMCE or Medium. Regardless of browser or operating system, Gutenberg would slow to a crawl on longer posts.
I’m still testing whether this is a server load issue or a browser issue, but this has been present across several Gutenberg updates and has been universal in my experience. Basically, after about 500 words, Gutenberg starts to get sluggish and to someone with a very high typing speed (100+ WPM), this is extremely frustrating.
The solution I’ve found for this is to write my post elsewhere and then port it over to Gutenberg. I hate doing this because I like seeing how a post looks as I write it. Writing, after all, is a visual medium. Writing has to both look good and read well. It’s hard to do that when the writing and the visuals are so separate.
All in all, with Gutenberg, it takes longer to write a post than it did in TinyMCE. This is even after weeks of use and thousands of words of practice.
The interface, technical issues and missing features make for a poorer writing experience.
That being said, I’m not moving away from Gutenberg, at least not yet. The reason is quite simple: It produces better results.
For me, Gutenberg’s power overcomes its shorfalls. However, it’s only by a razor’s edge. I value the visitor expeprience on my site above all else and I feel that Gutenberg simply provides a better one than I could get with TinyMCE
If it means I spend a little bit of extra time working on posts, so be it. As long as that time isn’t onerous, I will survive.
My hope is that Gutenberg smooths out its rough edges before its release. However, I’m not 100% optimistic that will happen.
In the end, Gutenberg is simply a mediocre replacement for TinyMCE. A more modern and powerful replacement, yes, but far from perfect and with many significant drawbacks.
This is simply not good enough. Gutenberg needs to be a home run for WordPress and it isn’t. Even if none of these issues existed, it wouldn’t win over everyone. With these issues, it’ll be doing well to even win over a simple majority.
Still, I like what it gives my readers, even if I hate what it gives me. I’ll keep using it for now, but that’s out of sacrifice to my audience, not because it’s the vastly superior editor.