Letters to an open source contributor: Communication

An open book with a jumble of printed words on the left page and, on the right, a page of regimented printing

Josepha likes to say, “all problems are, at their heart, communication problems,” and I couldn’t agree more. The most powerful tool in your open source toolbox is not an understanding of code or usability, but rather the ability to express yourself and understand what other people are trying to say.

Here are some qualities I have observed among highly successful contributors in open source:


Avoid “walls of text,” long paragraphs, and complex sentences.

Inexperienced or insecure contributors sometimes try to establish credibility or persuade their audience by writing a LOT of words. This is a mistake. Verbose communication requires people to work extra-hard to understand what you think or want. By the time they think they understand you, they are likely irritated that they’ve had to work so hard, or they have untested assumptions about why you’re burying them in words.

This is not easy advice for me to follow, because I love words and complex sentences! So when I’m writing to communicate in open source, I make a first draft and then cut words and sentences as far as I can. I sometimes joke that most of my writing time is actually spent deleting!

In open source, time is short and information overload is constant. You appear aggressive and disrespectful when you only communicate in long, complex messages. Be kind; be brief.


Don’t try to establish credibility by trying to appear smarter than other people; it just makes you look like a jerk. No one wants to work with someone who brags about their skills or calls attention to other people’s ignorance.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

No one was born knowing any computer language, or any fact, about open source or WordPress. Even if people were snotty to you as you were learning — remember how bad that felt, and don’t perpetuate the pattern. Rise above, and be kind to those who know less than you.

Showing off rarely makes you popular in open source, but humility and helpfulness nearly always do.


Open source projects are, if they’re lucky, global organizations full of very different people. Working in the open, with lots of people who are very different from you, is a great way to build something extraordinary.

Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on Pexels.com

To communicate effectively in those conditions, you must consider how your messages will be received by people from many different backgrounds and cultures. This isn’t just about refraining from slurs, swearing, broad generalizations, and gendered language — though, please avoid all that too! Really, I mean it!

But considerate communication is also:

  • thinking about how to include more people into the conversation, regardless of time zone,
  • allowing enough time for people with different availability to join a discussion or project,
  • assuming positive intent,
  • using group Slack pings sparingly, and
  • thinking about how people will feel, when they read your message(s).

We also communicate considerately by focusing our criticism on the problem, rather than the people. Personal attacks won’t get you anywhere that you really want to be.

Over and above

For even more open source/WordPress communication tips, check out these lessons from the WordPress contributor training course!

What did I miss?

Hey, other experienced open source contributors, what else do you think people need to know, about communicating successfully in open source? Add your advice in a comment on this post!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s