How to Edit a WordPress Theme

When you first log in to your new WordPress dashboard, you’ll notice things look a little bland. Not bad bland. Just ready for a website glow up bland.

The first step in dressing up your WordPress website is to navigate to the “Appearance” section of your dashboard, click on “Themes,” and select the theme that you like best.

Selecting a pre-coded WordPress theme is a great start for customizing your website, but what you can actually change on your website without a page builder, framework and child theme, or doing some direct theme editing is a bit limited.

This article will get into some of the more technical details of how you can edit a WordPress theme, or customize the look and feel of your WordPress website, including:

  • Using a page builder and frameworks
  • Making CSS edits
  • Editing the theme files directly
  • Looking into the WordPress Editor
  • Trying an FTP program

Caution: Make sure you have a backup

Before you start playing around with editing your theme, may I offer a word of caution? Make sure you have a backup of your site. When you start changing your site files, it’s possible to make a mistake and risk messing up your entire website. 

Having a website backup is like an insurance policy. If you get into a coding accident (we’ve all been there), your backup is your out. In other words, your backup allows you to revert back to your old site, no damage done.

Learn more about CodeGuard, the daily automatic backup service for your website.

1. Page builders and frameworks + child themes

If you have no coding experience at all, and don’t want to learn, then a great place to customize the style of your website is to use a page builder or a framework, and bag the idea of trying to edit your WordPress theme on your own.

Page builder plugins allow you to design your site using a user-friendly interface. To create the design of your page via this method, you install a page builder plugin with a compatible theme.

Some top page builders include Elementor, Divi, and Oxygen, and there are several others. 

If you use a page builder plugin and a compatible theme, then you typically can change the look and feel of your website by dragging-and-dropping different elements where you want them to appear.

Another way to further customize a theme is to check out theme frameworks and a compatible child theme. Frameworks are a parent theme, and child themes are different looks and feels for the framework you can customize, making your site look unique.

For my personal blog, I bought the Genesis framework, which works well for bloggers. I wanted to change the look and feel of the site, but didn’t want to do any coding, so I purchased the Magazine Pro child theme that is compatible with Genesis. This child theme made it possible for me to customize my framework without having to make CSS edits.

Now, let’s talk about some ways to edit a WordPress theme by actually altering your website theme files.

2. CSS edits

The easiest way to edit a WordPress theme is to edit the CSS. While this is the easiest of the four other direct editing methods this post will discuss, it’s critical to remember that CSS requires some basic knowledge before you dive in head first.

Once you’ve gained some CSS knowledge, here’s an overview of how you can complete CSS edits in WordPress:

  1. Log in to WordPress with your login credentials
  2. Turn your attention to the left WordPress dashboard, hover your cursor over “Appearance,” and click on “Edit CSS”
  3. Once you click on “Edit CSS,” WordPress will direct you to the customizer
  4. From here, click on “Additional CSS”
  5. Once you are here, you will see a blank field where you can start making edits to the structure and style of your theme

What you enter into the “Additional CSS” box will depend on what you want to customize and will vary from person-to-person and website-to-website.

If you are a beginner, WordPress does have some great tutorials to help you start out with CSS. Even when you navigate to the “Additional CSS” section of the customizer, you’ll see that WordPress offers some valuable instruction.

For example, at the top left of your screen, you’ll see a hyperlink that says, “Learn more about CSS.” 

additional css wordpress

When you click on the link WordPress provides, WordPress will direct you to a helpful guide that provides information and instructions about CSS.

You’ll also notice some other helpful bullet points that act as reminders of what to do when you’re using your keyboard to navigate.

Adding additional CSS is a great way to make changes to your WordPress theme, especially if you’re a beginner. CSS changes are saved in the database, but don’t actually modify the theme’s files.

Before you start making changes, though, remember to familiarize yourself with CSS by taking some CSS classes or using the WordPress resources on CSS.

3. Direct edit to your theme files

The next way to edit a WordPress theme is to edit the theme files directly. If you want these theme changes to be permanent, make sure you make these changes when you’re sure your respective theme won’t get an update. When a theme gets an update, sometimes it will erase the bits of code you added to the theme’s files, deleting your changes.

If you still want to move forward with editing theme files, even if you know there will be theme updates, simply make a note to save your theme customizations before you update your theme.

When making theme edits, users must remember that WordPress is an open-source platform and not all designers will name the files the same way. This can make it difficult for WordPress users to find the theme file they want to edit.

Thankfully, there is a plugin that helps with this problem called What The File. The first step is to install and activate this plugin. Then, look for the “What The File” link on the top toolbar, and click on “Template Parts.” This will show you all the files related to the page you are viewing.

You’ll also need to know what theme your site is running. You can find this by going to “Appearance” and looking to see the name of the theme. 

Once you have this information, you’re ready to edit.

Here is how you edit theme files directly:

  1. Use your cPanel to navigate to your files
  2. Find the public_html file
  3. Click on WP-content
  4. Click into the directory labeled “Themes”
  5. Click into the directory of the theme name you are using (the theme you found in the “Appearance” section)
  6. Find the file name you want to edit and click “Edit”
  7. Select your preferred editing method and click “Edit” again
  8. Make your code adjustments in the new box, and click “Save Changes”

Once you have completed these steps, you should see your changes live on your website. Again, before you make any changes, remember to make a backup.

4. Edit using the WordPress Editor (and why it’s not the best idea)

Another way to edit your WordPress theme is to use the basic code editor that is built into WordPress. The WordPress editor provides access to the theme files, allowing you to make changes. 

If you opt for this method, remember that you don’t have access to the full website files and it’s also difficult to make backups. Additionally, if you make improper changes here, the result can be your entire site coming down.

Many developers recommend against using the WordPress Editor. However, if you’re determined, here’s how you do it:

  1. Login to your WordPress account using your login credentials
  2. Go to the “Appearance” tab and click on “Editor”
  3. WordPress will default to the current active theme in your account
  4. Look to the right column of the editor and click on the file you want to edit
  5. Make the coding adjustments you want to make in the main editing screen
  6. When you are done, click on “Update File” on the bottom left of the screen

Once you are done, you will see the changes you’ve made on your WordPress site.

5. Use an FTP program to edit

The next option for editing your theme is to use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program. FTP gives you access to your hosting files and allows you to access files you want to edit.

A program you can use for free is called FileZilla, and supports Windows, Mac, and Linux. Once you have set up FTP, click “FTP Accounts” in your cPanel, create connections to the website, select the files you want to modify, and make the desired changes.

Wrap Up

Your WordPress theme includes the style and structure of your website and is what makes your website look different than any other website out there.

If you’re new to WordPress, a good way to customize the look and feel of your theme is to either look into a page builder and compatible theme, or to install a framework and a child theme. Either of these options is a great way to make a fancy looking site without having to do any code.

If you want to further customize your site, then you’ll want to know how to edit your WordPress theme. You can do this in several ways, including editing the CSS, directly editing your theme files, using the WordPress Editor, or using an FTP program.

Remember, to set up a customizable WordPress website, you need a solid hosting platform. You’ll also want to opt for a web hosting solution that has a cPanel that is easy to access and navigate. Check out HostGator’s WordPress hosting options today.

Ashley R. Cummings is a professional freelance writer specializing in SaaS, tech, and advertising/marketing. In a previous life, she was a Russian teacher at Brigham Young University, a corporate trainer, and a grad student—all at the same time. When she’s not writing, you can find her traveling the world with her 2 kids and husband, reading poetry or taking a deep dive into the fabulous world of comedy. Connect with her on Twitter at @ashleyrcummings.