Intermediate Git

May 1, 2020 by Abhishek Kumar

The version control system. It’s hard to imagine working on large projects or collaborating without git. If you want to learn beyond basic git and simplify your workflow, read on!


Basic git

Before we continue, You must already know:

  1. Basic operations - Cloning, committing, and tracking file changes.
  2. Using branches.
  3. Interacting with remote.

Ben Lynn’s Git Magic is a great, brief resource at 60 pages that covers the above topics and everyday git.

It’s also available as a git repository if you are feeling brave enough. Get started with:

git clone git://

Craft your commits carefully

Commits are more than just a series of diffs - They explain the context, the what and the why of changes. A perfect commit message answers what are the changes, why are they needed and how are they implemented. Reviewers and maintainers need to be convinced by the commit message that it’s worth their efforts.

Here’s a commit from a patch I had recently reviewed:

STRBUF_INIT_CONST: a new way to initialize strbuf

In a previous commit, a new function `STRBUF_INIT_CONST(const_str)`,
which would allow for the quick initialization of constant `strbuf`s,
was introduced.

In this commit, I check through the strbuf_* functions to edit the ones
that would try to edit the passed `strbuf` so that they are guaranteed to
behave in a predictable way when met with a constant.

Added Functions:

Updated Functions:

Functions where comments were added to clarify the expected behavior:

Here’s a better version for the same commit:

strbuf: teach strbuf to initialize constant string

- Adds `STRBUF_INIT_CONST()` to initialize const strbuf by setting
allocation size to 0.

- Guarantees predictable behavior when passed a constant strbuf by
converting to non-const strbuf.

Closes gitgitgagdet issue #461

It’s shorter, and has more information! It’s easier to understand the implementation. Reviewing code becomes more comfortable and fun.

Read up on how to write good commit messages.

Decide on a git workflow

This section is somewhat opinionated - Each workflow has advantages. Choose what suits you.

There are many workflows to use git - Feature branching, gitflow, forking workflow, centralized workflow. Learn about them and decide on an appropriate workflow for your projects.

I am a messy developer who likes clean git logs - See a contradiction? I tend to create a lot of non-sensical, poor commits while developing. It makes sense for me to use squash rebase workflow.

My workflow looks like this:

  1. While there are more changes
    1. Make a small change.
    2. Create a commit.
  2. Rebase commits into large, related commits.
  3. Reword proper commit messages.

Anecdotally, I get more work done when I plan out commits into small chunks of ~50 lines. Or maybe organized, thought out code is faster to implement. You can’t go wrong either way.

Read up on other git workflows as well.

Use --patch flag for smarter commits

You: Listen, I know you are too enthusiastic about commits. I didn’t, and now it’s all grouped - Is there something I could do?

Me: Ugh, use git add -p.

-p or the patches flag allows you to go over each hunk of change and decide whether to add it to the current commit. You can then create multiple commits with relevant changes in each step.

If you have ever tried modified a file in multiple places and wanted to commit only a section of it - now you know-how.

Once you get used to patch wise commits, look up --interactive flag - it’s a more efficient albeit less intuitive tool solving the same problem.

Setup SSH keys

Remembering passwords are hard. People have terrible memories. Computers, on the other hand, are unnatural at memorizing. Easy and repeated passwords are a security risk. Could everyone just not?

SSH keys simplify the workflow in an easy, no-effort way. Git remembers for you. Steps involved depend on your forge (yes, service providers like Github are called forges):

  1. Setting up SSH keys for Github.
  2. Setting up SSH keys for Gitlab.

It’s one of the first things I do when I set up a system. Also, set up reasonable defaults and aliases in ~/.gitconfig.

Use .gitignore

.gitignore instructs git to ignore particular files. Usually, configuration and log files are ignored. But all generatable files must be ignored - this includes generated binaries, object files, jars, flex/yacc generated code. Special operating system files like .DS_Store, thumbs.db should be added to global git ignore rules. The repositories look much cleaner without them.

I have a habit of creating a todo file in each of my projects to jot down stuff. It’s ignored globally. has extensive gitignore templates for programming languages, IDEs, and projects.

Use hooks to automate the boring stuff

Waiting for a half-hour, only for CI-CD tests to fail and complain about whitespace changes, is surely an infuriating experience.

Hooks to the rescue!

Hooks are custom scripts that are triggered by operations like committing, pushing. Using hooks, you can run the linter locally before each push. No more broken lint tests!.

But that is not all - You can improve your productivity by automating repetitive tasks. Clearing out build files when changing branches, deploying websites by pushing to master, creating merge requests when creating a new remote branch are good examples.

githooks contains a lot more documentation, examples, and projects for managing git hooks.

Use submodules

Submodules are a way to nest repositories. How is that useful? You might ask. Here’s an example from the documentation:

Suppose you are developing a website and creating Atom feeds. You decide to use a third-party library. It’s difficult to customize the library and deploy it. Submodules address this by keeping the library repository as a subdirectory of your project.

Submodules allow you to keep a repository as a subdirectory of another repository. You could clone the library and make your changes, confident that it can be deployed later. Newer package managers like RubyGems, Go Modules can build directly from forges. Submodules are redundant in such environments.

Another use case is splitting massive projects into submodules. Boost, a collection of high-quality C++ libraries, manages individual libraries as a submodule. Submodules reduce the cost of the initial clone, ensure relevant updates, and have a separate community around each interest.

Subtrees also attempt to solve the problems as submodules in a more accessible way. Read about their differences.

Use worktrees instead of multiple clones

While working on websites - I need to compare the behavior of my changes with master. Constantly switching branches for each new tab adds a mental overhead.

Worktrees allows you to create an extra copy of your repository. The changes are synced between worktrees. They are better and more efficient than managing multiple clones. If you want to checkout two branches at once - worktrees solve this itch.

Some other use cases for worktree are fixing merge conflicts (you can navigate source code by checking out master) and running large test suites locally.

Here’s an article on parellizing development using git worktrees.


Before I knew about git grep, I used to open up firefox, go to the repository, and use Github’s search feature. It was - you might expect, terribly inefficient. Learning these features taught me to become a more thoughtful, more productive developer.

Learning more about the tools we use - programming languages, IDEs, VCS is essential to improve as a developer.

Further Reading

Some more handy topics that didn’t fit in:

  1. Git grep - Fast text search for tracked files.
  2. Git mailing list - Where all the cool kids hangout.
  3. Pro git - The definitive book on more advanced use of git.
  4. Git best practices.
  5. 10 Git anti patterns.