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Clean up your commits for a pull request


When you contribute to an Open Source project through a pull request, the maintainer often wants you to clean up your commits. I will show you what that means and why git rebase is your command of choice here.

So let's say you have made this pull request with a super amazing feature for an Open Source project and you're waiting for the maintainer's feedback. In a perfect world your request would be perfect too and it would get merged immediately to the project's core.

But in reality this is not often the case. Mostly the maintainer needs you to change something in your code. This could be a typo, an additional test, wrong indention or something else. Even if your initial pull request had just one beautiful commit, it now looks different.

This is when someone tells you to clean up your commits. Maybe you think this isn't importing but I can tell you it is! Working with other devs on your project can get pretty fast a mess. A clean code is important when you want to maintain a project successfully for a long time.

So let's say we have a pull request with three commits. The first one is our new feature. The second is adding a test and the last one is fixing a typo. The last two were necessary because of changes the project's maintainer wanted. Now the commit history isn't that beautiful anymore. This is why we want to merge them with git rebase.

Git rebase solves the same problem as git merge. They both integrate changes from another branch. This is not exactly what we need here, but there is a git rebase -i too. (interactive) Typically interactive rebasing is used for cleaning up your git history and this is exactly what we want to do.

See interactive rebasing in production

Finally here is some code. We checkout the branch from our pull request and start the interactive rebase session with the master branch as our base. This means we want to edit all the new commits from our feature branch back to the code state of the master branch. (three commits in our case)

// Checkout the feature branch
git checkout feature/superAmazing
// start interactive rebase session
git rebase -i master
Note: It is possible to set a certain commit as base too, instead of the master branch!

This will open an editor with an overview of the commits (hash and commit message) and some instructions on what you can edit.

pick dae2691 add amazing feature
pick 3491879 add test
pick 3fedbd5 fix typo

# Commands:
# p, pick = use commit
# r, reword = use commit, but edit the commit message
# e, edit = use commit, but stop for amending
# s, squash = use commit, but meld into previous commit
# f, fixup = like "squash", but discard this commit's log message
# x, exec = run command (the rest of the line) using shell

We are interested in the squash command wich will "..use commit, but meld into previous commit..". Let's switch it with the pick command for our last two commits. (You can just write "s" instead of squash too) This means we'd like to keep all the changes, but meld them together under the first commit message.

pick dae2691 add amazing feature
squash 3491879 add test
squash 3fedbd5 fix typo

After editing the file you need to save it and provide a last new commit message for the merge. The last thing to do, is to push the changes.

Note: While rebasing we have to use the force flag like "git push -f" in order to perform a push!


Voila. Now you got a clean commit history ready to get merged with just one meaningful commit. Git rebase often feels like using black magic first, but as you have seen it is definitely not. Use it whenever you need to change your commit history.

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