Tag Archives: documentation

Commit messages, tickets, and inline docs

As a Trained Academicâ„¢, I try to think about software documentation in terms of audience and purpose. Who is going to read technical docs? What will they be trying to learn by reading them? I use these questions as a lens for writing different kinds of documentation.

I like to think of commit messages as the canonical technical narrative of the project. These messages matter most for two groups of people: those following the ongoing development of the project, and those intrepid future souls who are combing through logs to track the lineage of given bit of code. The needs of the two groups are similar, which suggests certain content and formatting for commit messages. Both groups are scanning sizable streams of changesets, and thus need a quick way to disregard those that are irrelevant to them. That’s where the one-line summary is helpful, for git log and GUIs like this. Beyond the summary, they usually need a bit more context, a bird’s-eye summary of the problem the changeset is intended to fix. They need pointers to full discussions (ie, linked tickets). And because in projects like WordPress the changelog is also an attribution log, they need reference to the person responsible for the fix (“props”). It’s these kinds of needs I’m thinking about when I structure commit messages like this. (Side note: I’m a big fan of this post arguing for a similar commit message format.)

Tickets are bug notices or feature requests as they appear in the project’s issue tracker. The primary audience here is the developers, designers, and users who are currently involved in the ongoing development of the software. It’s a workspace, and it’s messy. Tickets may contain extended discussions, with numerous digressions and dead-end patches. It’s for this reason that issue tickets are not a replacement for good commit messages. Commit messages contain justification for changesets, while trackers contain the process that led to that justification.

Inline docs, primarily in the form of function/method/class docblocks, are intended first and foremost for developers who are currently trying to figure out how the software works. As a rule, these people don’t care about the history of the project, or the reasoning that led to a given piece of code. The documentation should answer questions like: where is this function used in the codebase? if I put x into the function, what will I get out of it? etc. While it’s often good to have pointers to the project history in certain cases – such as a link to a ticket that explains why an unintuitive bit of code works in the way it does – it probably does more harm than good to litter inline documentation with details about the project’s intellectual history. That’s what blame tools are for.

It goes without saying that there are gray areas. Commit messages, tickets, and inline docs all have the same “text” as their subject: the codebase. And the intended audiences for the three kinds of documentation are frequently overlapping. Still, I think it’s helpful to keep the distinctions in mind. When you write documentation, you’re writing the story of the project as it’ll be understand by future coder-historians. You want to make sure that the story makes sense.