beginner's guide to movable type?

| 24 Comments | 7 TrackBacks

The Invisible Adjunct has asked for a beginner's guide to Movable Type.

I'm tempted to take this on...either by myself, or with a grad student looking for a good project. But if there's already something underway, I'll back off--or offer to help with it.

I'm not thinking so much of an installation manual (I think the instructions are pretty good for that already, and many non-techie sorts will probably go to someone else for the install). More of something that would help with blog design and management. Pointers to CSS examples and tutorials that are specifically relevant to blog templates. Guide to how to accomplish specific effects in templates. Perhaps a selection of "cut and paste" code to use in templates. More information on things like categories, archives, etc.

In the meantime, here are some of my template files, for anyone to use or study as they'd like. The zip file includes the following:

  • index-template.txt
  • ind-archive-template.txt
  • cat-archive.txt
  • date-archive.txt
  • styles-site.css

The index template in particular contains a lot of stuff that's specific to me--my blogrolls, my ecosystem info, my picture, etc. But it at least shows a 3-column format implemented (in conjunction with the css file). The archive templates all are based on my having implemented SimpleComments, so that comments and trackbacks are combined into the comments section for each entry.

The only problem with SimpleComments is that when you get a new trackback ping, the individual archive is not automatically rebuilt (as it is with a new comment). There are reasons for this, but I ended up following the instructions over on Phil Ringnalda's blog in order to change that. (_N.B._: Those instructions assume you're somewhat comfortable hacking around in the MT program files!)

Other tweaks I've made to the blog include installing Brad Choate's very useful MT-Textile formatting (based on Dean Allen's most-excellent Textile "humane web text generator"), and SmartyPants, which adds typographical niceties like smart quotes, real em dashes, real ellipsis, etc.

One of the things I like most about MT is that it lets me customize it to my hearts' content. To me, it's the geek equivalent of getting to do the interior design in my house. For those of you who feel the same way, there's a directory of Movable Type plug-ins that's pretty good--it includes everything mentioned above, and much more. Most of them don't require hacking skills, and are safe for even relatively new/non-techie users of the software.

7 TrackBacks

from Liz Lawley... Read More

Yes, it's true, I helped bring the Fensty Weblog into the world. He seems to be figuring out Movable Type... Read More

Blogging Info from Private Notes on April 7, 2003 4:14 PM

mamamusings: beginner's guide to movable type? Could provide some nice code for making things look a bit cleaner.... Read More

There’s been so much “gee, would somebody please?” surrounding Liz Lawley’s suggestion of a MT-for-newbies tutorial that I thought I’d take a few whacks at parts of one. (Remember, all y’all, CavLec is public domain,... Read More

Other MT Templates from Timbu :: Musings on April 9, 2003 11:35 AM

mamamusings I mention this blog as it is one of a few sites using three column CSS with Movable Type and she makes the template available on her site. She also seems to have an interest in "social software", formerly Read More

I snagged the CSS layout for this weblog from BlogStyles, but it's been a little hinky to work with. Mamamusings has another set of CSS templates for Movable Type that I've been experimenting with. (I have MT installed under Apache... Read More

recent comments from george.h.williams on June 16, 2003 9:23 PM

As you can see, I've added a "recent comments" section to my blog sidebar. I can't take credit for figuring it out on my own, however. Back at the beginning of April, Liz posted some of her template files, and... Read More


If you decide to go forward with this. If I have time, I am doing something similar, though I plan on doing it, I suspect, from a *much* more basic level than you will. I've got a grad student helping out with this (another Alex!). If there is some way to divide this out, maybe we can half the work. Or perhaps this is something we should do via, e.g., Webkitchen or another available wiki, to allow more input? Just an idea.

(This is in prep for launching, which is still in the early stages.)

Might could get the socialtext folks to let us use their space for this. (Gotta love how my years in Alabama creep into my text every now and then...)

Liz (and Alex), please please please go ahead and do this — but don’t neglect elementary instruction and installation. Since I began blogging about Seabury’s and the Disseminary’s experiences with MT, I’ve gotten regular feedback from people (some of whom claim to be pretty comfortable with technology) who have held off adopting MT because the installation process just wasn’t clear enough for them.

I think there’s a threshhold here, one that isn’t as visible to those who have crossed over it. MT is fantastic, but it’s still too hard for many aspiring users. A gentle, hand-holding guide to installing and modifying MT (“how do I use this plug-in?”) would be extremely useful to users such as these.

The only problem with trying to simplify the install instructions is that a good bit of it is dependent on the user's environment.

Most of the non-tech users I talk to don't want to learn to install it, so much as they want someone to do it for them. :-)

That being said, my earlier "wishlist" for MT did have an installer package listed. Now that I think about it, it might well be possible to build a web-based form that prompted the user for key pieces of information (and how to find them), like "full path to web directory", and then customized the instructions based on that info.

Perhaps a wiki would be useful for this sort of project, if only because the concept of "beginner" is something of a moving target. (When I set up my honey with his MT blog, he was baffled just by the sheer volume of little boxes, drop-downs, etc. in the admin interface, whereas the step that gave me anxiety was going into modifying the templates.)

Oh, and consider that an offer to help whatever project might be started/going on. :)

I dunno, I think that anyone who's (rightfully) intimidated by the complexity of MT isn't going to be comfortable poking around WikiSpeak for instructions. Wikis confuse me, and I'm pretty adept with MT templates, etc.

My question is, other than the install, what are the parts that are confusing? Because I think the intimidating nature of the install masks what might be other legitimately confusing parts of Movable Type, and I'm wondering what's going to seem like an obvious shortcoming after the install problems are addressed.

What I'm really interested in addressing is the whole issue of customizing content and appearance of the blog. That's where MT has such an advantage over other packages, I think, but the documentation is really geared towards people who already understand the concept of scripting language templates.

I think a good guide for new non-techie users would focus on "so you want to..." kinds of things.

"So you want a 3-column layout?..."

"So you want to change the 'posted by' line?"

"So you want to get rid of pop-up comments and/or trackbacks?"

"So you want a way to format text more easily?"


To my mind, the two key areas are (1) CSS guidelines *geared towards MT* (most non-tech users I talk to who have not yet figured out that there are a bunch of CSS templates on the MT site, for example...or what to do with them if they find them), and (2) much more basic explanations of how to use template tags, with more examples of what tags to use for specific results.

I don't think a distributable version of this should be done via Wiki--I agree with you on that entirely. But my sense was that the wiki was being proposed for the writing process, more than for the distribution.

Everyone has their threshold of complexity, beyond which the balk. Some blanche at the MT Installation instructions. (They ought to consider paying Ben and Mena to do the installation -- it's not that expensive, and goes to a good cause.) Others look at Alexei Kosut's MTThreadedComments instructions and run screaming from the room.

I, personally, enjoy learning this stuff. Before installing MT in October, I had never used a content-management system. I'd written web pages (most of which even validated), but I'd never used CSS, never heard of XHTML, or used an SQL database.

But now I have what is, apparently, the world's first MathML-enabled weblog.

I think the most important thing you can do is help people overcome their fear and take the plunge. Some will be content with what they find (and never so much as touch the default templates). Others will find themselves asking, "I wonder how I can do..." and will soon find themselves tweaking MT's perl code.

Hot damn, MathML! (Oops, sorry, Liz. Got carried away there.)

Newbie install problems I've seen people run into:

- They don't do FTP. First thing, find an FTP tutorial on the level you want. I doubt you'll have to write it yourselves.

- Binary vs. ASCII FTP. This is just irritating. *grin* Best thing to do is tell people the likely results of doing this wrong, so they know what's happened and can try to correct.

- chmod. Especially if they're not UNIXites. Not a few Win programs make it silly difficult to chmod files. ("Only relevant to UNIX servers," says the popular WS_FTP. Well, that's *what* percentage of all servers?)

- The mt.cfg file, as mentioned by others.

Personal opinion only: The default templates would be easier to mess with if the markup were cleaner. Get rid of <a name> in favor of id, use heading levels instead of <div>, use container tags instead of <span> separated with <br>, and so on.

One approach to solving this might be a sort of MT Template Cookbook, with markup and/or CSS bits for various parts of a typical blog page. Better yet, a template cookbook with a canonical set of markup and a bunch of CSS flavors to go with it.

Er. Think I'm starting to run away with this. Sorry, Liz; no highhandedness intended.

Sorry, didn't mean to hit you with a gratuitous ping for a TrackBack. I started a blog as a sort of bookmarks list, and added this entry to it. I have not turned on TrackBack auto discovery, so I'm not sure why it pinged you. I'm still learning, I guess.

But now that I'm here making a comment: A beginner's guide is a great idea, particulary valuable to students in a class where blogging might be an assignment. I'm hoping to do so in the future, for example, and to be able to point to an already established introductory guide to MT would be great.

I gotta agree that the markup in the default MT templates is very intimidating.

Dorothea's suggestion of using more "semantic" markup is a good one. Another approach, which would be helpful is to break things off into modules, which could be included with <MTInclude module="...">.

One could then present a radically pared-down, simplified set of templates, which one could then start dressing up by including various module (cookbook-fashion).

This approach is good for experts, too. The total size of my MT Templates is a fraction of what it would otherwise be, had I not broken off all the repetitious code into modules.

re: wiki - okay, I gotta agree about the reading thereof being too confusing; I think I was thinking more of the writing, as Liz correctly intuits. and I agree with Dorothea and Jacques about the default markup.

Liz says:
"...but the documentation is really geared towards people who already understand the concept of scripting language templates."

Yes! I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't understand much of the documentation. I pick up bits and pieces from the support forum, from other web sites, and so on, then flounder around trying to make changes. And I think I'm fairly bold for someone with my degree of ignorance. Others (and I suspect many others) won't use MT even though they'd like to, because the whole thing is too intimidating.

The "so you want a 3-column layout" is exactly the approach that people in my situation need.

The MT newbie that has passed the first steps of installation might also find some useful reading here:

*cough* There's a wiki in development right now, thanks to Brenna at; she's one of the moderators at the MT Forums - it's not quite public yet...but it will be soon.

Donna, thanks for the heads-up. That's why I wanted to ask publicly about doesn't make sense for there to be lots of independent work going on if it could be collaborative instead.

You're welcome - if anyone is interested, e-mail me at donna at deliriouscool dot org and I'll give you the address.

I feel so much better reading all this! although I can use dreamweaver Mx (built a business site in Japanese, albeit with tables), I am so frustrated with the MT process! A friend installed it, but everytime I try to modify templates (the MT defaults, blogboxes, doesn't matter which) I either get blank pages, or bizarre inexplicable permutations...I swear the thing is laughing at me... and I do so want to use MT, it's perfect for my project. I'm feverishly trying to build a community blog for Tokyo Progressive Forum...but most of my fever is in the difficulty of fixing whatever is wrong with basic template design, and the lack of a "wizard" or "yahoo" type interface to make it a relatively painless...

anyway, all this is to say that if your "Dummies" project needs a cadre of dummies to test things on, I'm ready and willing:-)


A Beginner's Guide - from installation to changing templates and beyond would be extremely helpful to many of us out here who are not stupid, but just need simplified instructions in plain English.

(I'm a writer/filmmaker with a visual rather than technical sensibility. Having only used MSFrontpage, tweaked bits of HTML, and installed simple cgi sripts, I am now involved in findin solutions to two 'community-orientated' publishing projects which need CMS. seems impressive, as well as as used at

Well done to all on the initiative for developing this 'Beginner's Guide' and good luck in all your efforts!

A Beginner's Guide - from installation to changing templates and beyond would be extremely helpful to many of us out here who are not stupid, but just need simplified instructions in plain English.

(I'm a writer/filmmaker with a visual rather than technical sensibility. Having only used MSFrontpage, tweaked bits of HTML, and installed simple cgi sripts, I am now involved in findin solutions to two 'community-orientated' publishing projects which need CMS. seems impressive, as well as as used at

Well done to all on the initiative for attempting to develop a 'Beginner's Guide' and good luck in all your efforts!

i'm a complete novice and i've created a beginner's guide to help pple like me. maybe some of you can check it out.

Information, FAQs, details, etc for and about MT may not be common, otherwise why would this thread even be started, but there has to be something, somewhere. I've tried digging through blog archives (little bits and pieces here and there but never anything collected together), google searches, etc and I really haven't found much. Does someone have a collection of links to already provided tips and FAQs that may not be /great/ but would at least help me move forward? I've been playing around with HTML since '95 but when it comes to CSS I'm totally lost.

A beginner's guide would be absolutely great. But since nothing of that sort exists at the moment, anything else would be greatly appreciated.

Nice blog. I actually got here by searching for "Movable Type Template" at Google.

I agree about the documentation - and Liz nailed a common issue with documentation. There's a certain assumption in much documentation that the user knows what they are doing - and that is a horrid assumption, since *if* the user knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be reading the manual in the first place.

Personally, I like Liz's concept of 'so you want a 3 column blog', 'so you want...'. In programming terms, we developers call these 'use case scenarios'. As users, we talk about "I wanna do xyz".

There are a few ways to handle this. As you mentioned, some people could write better documentation - and since MovableType is free and Open Source, this would be a good thing.

Another option would be for developers to take some of the more common problems that users face and automate them.

I think that, for MovableType to evolve and become more useful and usable, both have to happen. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to dedicate to this at this time... but it would definitely be a cool project.

Someone had mentioned a Wiki for the writing process. That's a good idea.

You don't know what a relief it is to find out that I'm not the only one who has struggled with this problem. Not only are the installation instructions daunting, a lot of the details in them are usually irrelevant to the beginning user, but they don't know that because they don't know what they are doing on a first-time installation.

Another problem is that some of the css files at the MT site do not display correctly in Internet Explorer (yet display fine in Mozilla). If a newbie uses any of those files, they are going to be pulling their hair out trying to figure out what they did wrong, when it isn't their fault at all. Put up a test blog and try each of those css files, put a long entry up, and in IE you'll see what I mean.

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This page contains a single entry published on April 5, 2003 11:30 AM.

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