Improve Your Git Commits in Two Easy Steps

In any successful open-source project, quality git commits are essential. Yes, your code should be technically sound, well-tested and functional, but breaking up your changes into readable chunks and writing informative commit messages are equally as important as the actual code being committed to the project. Well-structured and well-written git commits ensure your code is maintainable, approachable and can be easily debugged. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or brand new to an open-source community, writing quality git commits is an essential step towards getting your changes merged. Excellent commits have two attributes:  

  1. Each commit only does one thing 
  2. Each commit message is its own self-contained story 

I spoke on this topic recently at OpenSource101. The recording of my presentation is below. 

Improve Your Git Commits in Two Easy Steps – Rose Judge – VMware – Open Source 101 

Each commit does only one thing 

At a high level, think of your commit like a recipe. If you had ingredients and were told to use them to make a cake, where would you start? First, you would probably look for a recipe that tells you how to make it. Now imagine all the directions for the recipe are crammed into one big paragraph instead of separated into steps – it would be pretty hard to follow along, right? The same is true for your git commits. Think of your pull request, which is the sum of all your commits, as the recipe. Each commit in that pull request should be one step of the recipe that tells you how to make the cake.  

Separating your commits into smaller chunks makes your changelog easier to navigate if there’s ever a regression in your code. Your commits are essentially a list of steps that you can trace to find where the problem was introduced. If all your past changes are represented as one big change, it’s going to be difficult to narrow down where exactly the error occurred. But, if your changes are separated into smaller commits that each only do one thing, it will be much easier to isolate the commit that broke the build. Once you find that commit, reverting a smaller patch that only does one thing will be much easier than if that patch contained many changes.   

As you start to break up your commits to only do one thing, consider what each change is doing. Isolate your non-functional changes into their own commits (i.e., changes where no code is changing). Next, dissect your functional changes into their own commits. For example, if you are creating a new function ‘foo’ while also renaming another function ‘bar,’ each of those individual changes can be their own commits. If you are doing any code cleanup, those changes can also be their own commits. Finally, no commit should break the build. This means that at each commit the code should compile.  

Each commit message is its own self-contained story 

Once you’ve broken up your changes so each commit only does one thing, it’s time to write a commit message for each change. Your commit message title should contain a summary of what changed. The body of the commit message will be your explanation as to why and in what context the changes are being made.  

In general, keep the reviewer in mind when you are writing your commit message. Assume they are not familiar with the code you’re changing and have no context about why the change is being made. Summarize any relevant information in the body – this may include information about how you arrived at your proposed solution, why the fix is necessary, notes on performance improvements, error messages the commit is addressing, bug references or links to relevant discussions. If you provide outside URLs in your commit message, it’s important that enough context exists in the commit message itself that the reviewer doesn’t have to click on the link to understand the changes. Think of any URL you provide as supportive evidence in addition to your summary of the relevant information. 

A good commit message boils down to a good story. It has a beginning, middle and end with all relevant details self-contained and clearly summarized. A self-contained commit message will explain any assumptions being made in the explanation and reference future or past commits in context so the reviewer can easily comprehend the changes being proposed. The more detail and clarity you provide as to why you are making the change, the faster the reviewer(s) will be able to provide feedback and ultimately, merge your change.  

The power of good commits 

Well-organized commits and thoroughly explained commit messages add numerous benefits to a project: 

  • Makes future debugging and code cleanup easier 

If you encounter a regression in the future and you need to figure out which change caused the problem, working with smaller commits that only do one thing makes it easier to find the exact change where the issue was introduced and revert it, if necessary.   

  • Protection when a contributor leaves a project 

Good commits are an easy insurance policy to protect against attrition in a project. If anyone contributing to your project suddenly leaves the community, good commits will make it possible for the project to continue even when an author of a patch set is not around to answer questions. 

  • Enables time zone collaboration 

Good commits enable the development process to continue even while contributors in differing time zones sleep. If someone has a question about a particular commit, they can read the commit message and get all the context they need instead of waiting to ask the author directly. 

  • Makes your project approachable for new contributors 

Think of your commit messages in the same way you think of documentation for your project – if your commits are detailed and organized, new contributors will get up and come running to contribute to your project sooner. 

Writing good commits is a skill that will take time to master – but practice is the only way to improve. So start practicing today. If you’re the maintainer of a project, add your projects git commit requirements to the Contributing Guide. If you’re a contributor working on a project with no commit requirements, consider opening an issue (or better yet, a pull request!) to add these requirements to the project documentation.  

When you’re writing and opening pull requests for a project, lead by example and write the commit messages that you would want to read. Break up your commits in such a way that if you had to debug your code a year from now it would be a pleasant experience. By that same token, hold others accountable for their commits. Whether you are a maintainer or a contributor, encourage others to break up their commits to only do one thing and write informative commit messages for them. Holding others accountable for their work creates a culture of continuous improvement and makes your project, as well as the engineers who work on it, better. Then, enjoy a slice of cake!


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