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Troubleshooting the WordPress White Screen of Death

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Written by Guest Author

Your blog was working fine until just a moment ago. Now when you try to load it, you’re faced with a whole lot of nothing. This is what the WordPress community calls the White Screen of Death, and while it is certainly unsettling—if not terrifying, despair-inducing, and generally confusing—it is also far from unfixable.

When something goes wrong on a WordPress website, you’ll typically see a blank screen where your blog used to be. Luckily, it looks more severe than it is. The WSOD comes about when PHP (the computer language WordPress is based on) encounters an error that makes the site’s code incomplete, and so rather than displaying the wrong thing, your site displays a white screen. Personally, I have encountered the WSOD dozens of times on both my own sites and client’s sites, and it has always been something I could remedy myself with a little detective work.

Face to face with a blank white screen? Here’s my order of operations for a resolution:

Fix #1: Disable your blog’s plugins

Plugins are applications that add extended features to your WordPress core. The downside is that they’re not part of the WordPress core, so they’re often the most common culprit behind the WSOD. There are a lot of reasons plugins go bad, like:

  • The plugin’s code doesn’t play nice with a WordPress system update.
  • The plugin clashes with a new theme you install.
  • There’s a bug in the plugin and the creator hasn’t built a fix yet.
  • There is a plugin fix in the form of an update you haven’t installed.

Plugins come with their own increased advantages and setbacks to match, so nine times out of 10 when your site isn’t loading, a plugin is to blame. The first thing you want to do is deactivate ALL of your plugins. Navigate to Dashboard → Plugins in the WordPress backend to do so.

wordpress plugins dashboard

Can’t access your WordPress backend? Getting a WSOD there, too? In that case, you’re going to want to use your hosting provider’s File Manager to access the plugins. Navigate to your WordPress installation directory and enter the wp_content/plugins folder.

To disable each plugin, delete the plugin folder. Keep in mind that you will have to re-download a new copy later, but this is the most airtight way to deactivate plugins for troubleshooting.

After you disable all of your plugins, reload your site in the browser and see if it appears again.

Fix #2: Enable a generic theme

Still not working? Your snazzy WordPress theme may be to blame. Some themes look nice, but may be improperly coded. Certain modifications you’ve made yourself may also be to blame. Or it could be that after a system update, your theme no longer plays nice with the WordPress core.

There’s also the possibility that you have no theme, or an incomplete theme, activated. If you have a child theme without the parent, or your theme is missing some key components, it won’t show up and your site won’t know what to display at all.

Navigate to Appearances → Themes to disable your current theme and activate a generic one. I recommend using the latest WordPress core theme (as of this writing), Twenty Seventeen.

wordpress theme

Can’t access the WordPress backend to do this? No problem, let’s use the File Manager. Go to the wp-content/themes folder and rename your current theme. WordPress will switch to the latest default theme, most often Twenty Seventeen or Twenty Sixteen. If you’ve deleted the default themes, simply download a new copy and upload it to the themes folder.

wordpress plugins

Here, I went to the themes folder to rename my active theme, Impreza, to something else. WordPress automatically booted up my site with Twenty Seventeen as the active theme. Try refreshing your site in the browser to see if this solved your WSOD.

Fix #3: Check your memory limit

If neither of the two fixes worked, it might be time to check your memory limit. If your site sometimes loads as a White Screen of Death, but other times is working perfectly fine, you may have exceeded your hosting provider’s memory limit, especially if you are on a shared plan. It may not feel like it right now, but this is a good thing! It means your site has gotten too big and popular and you’ve outgrown your current hosting plan.

First, try modifying your PHP memory limit in the wp-config.php file. All you need to do is add the following line of code to the top of the file:

define('WP_MEMORY_LIMIT', '64M');

64MB should be plenty. But if this is your memory limit and you’re still running into the WSOD, it might be time to move on up from a shared hosting plan to a VPS hosting plan that can provide you with the memory limit your bustling blog is now demanding.

Fix #4: Check your logs

It’s extremely rare for the White Screen of Death to be caused by something other than these three issues, but it can happen. You can make the WSOD a little less intimidating and a little more helpful by adding the following code to wp-config.php:

define( 'WP_DEBUG', true);

WP_Debug is a built-in WordPress option for developers who want to see a visual representation of an error that is bringing down the site. It will force a blank or buggy site to instead spit out the errors that are causing its current state.

Luckily, my site doesn’t have any errors right now. I created one by defining WP_Debug as both true and false at the same time so it’d warn me I have a contradiction in my code. Here’s what WP_Debug will look like when its display is defined to true:

wordpress

Needless to say, it doesn’t look very attractive and you’re going to want to set it to false again once you’re done figuring out the problem!

Site errors can be difficult to parse, so you’ll usually want to use this debugging message while working with a tech support professional. If you have a DreamHost plan, you can contact support for assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Being able to start with the site’s description of the error will make your support process run much more smoothly.

Feel comfortable tackling the problem yourself on the command line? Check out these additional resources for more troubleshooting tips. DreamHost supports wp-cli (the WordPress command line interface), so you can diagnose your WordPress problems directly.

I’ve been using WordPress for more than a decade, and one of these four issues has always been the cause for a temporary White Screen of Death. It’s always a surface-level problem. It’s reassuring to be able to tell my clients that even behind the blankness, the database and design are still there. So stay calm, follow the steps, and your site will be back pronto, in all its colorful glory!

About the Author: Lauren Orsini is a writer, developer, and DreamHost user in Washington, DC.

With contributions from the Hippo Thinks research network.

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