Programming is often an exploratory exercise where, for example, one might not know what a refactor should look like until the driving feature is done. This leads to a messy commit history.

Git offers tools to create a clean history upfront or to fix it up later.

What does an ideal history look like

Why keep a clean history

History decays with time

What keeps us from the ideal history

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.

- Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

How to keep a clean history

Git supports you with:


Upfront: Distinct changes in distinct sections of code

When modifying one section of code, you might be reading another section and notice something you want to change, like a typo.

When the changes are in separate files

git add <file1>
git commit
git add <file2>
git commit

When the changes are in the same file, you can select which parts to stage.

# Interactive staging let's you choose which changed hunks you want to stage
# Sometimes a hunk is bigger than you want and you can split it.
git add -p <file>
git commit
git add <file>
git commit

Tip: Make staging files your habit rather than git commit --all to save yourself from having to fix things up later.

See also Understanding Git - Index.

Upfront: Partway through a change, realize you want to make a conflicting change

Stashing is the go-to for quickly saving off your work to make another change

<change file>
git stash

<change file>
git add <file>
git commit

git stash pop
<resolve file>
<finish file>
git add <file>
git commit <file>

Tip: The stash is a stack of changes which can feel opaque to work with which makes it harder to work with over periods of time or when multiple changes are getting stashed. It also can't be pushed for sharing / backup. In these cases, it might be better to use branches.

Fixing: ctrl-z! ctrl-z! ctrl-z!

Before getting into how to rewrite history, its helpful to know how to recover when you don't like where you ended up. This is possible because git does not automatically delete unreferenced commits in the commit graph (instead requires calling git gc). git reflog let's you browse your HEAD's history, allowing you to find commits from before rewriting history.

# Find hash from before rewrite
git reflog

# Update the branch and index to point to <hash>
# - `--soft` to not touch index
# - `--hard` to also update working directory
git reset <hash>

Lower impact commands:

# See differences
git diff <hash>
# Switch to <hash> as a detached head (ie anonymous branch)
git checkout <hash>
# Update working directory, good if you want to revert your rebase via a commit.
git checkout <hash> -- .

See also A Visual Git Reference and How to undo (almost) anything with Git

"Fixing": Updating your branch to latest from master

Coming from other SCM's, git merge sounds familiar and might be what you reach for by default. The thing to remember is that git's commits are not linear but a graph and git merge can easily lead to complex commit graphs.

# - Fetch origin/master
# - Take existing commits and append them to origin/master
git pull --rebase origin master

In case you want to explore the difference, like when dealing with conflicts, it might be helpful to do this as separate commands:

git checkout master
git pull
git checkout - # `-` means "last branch"
git rebase master

See also How to manage your Git history: Tips for keeping your commits tidy and A tidy, linear Git history

Fixing: Changing the most recent commit

<change file>
git add <file>
git commit --amend

Tip: If you've already pushed your PR, consider making a fixup commit (see below) during the review and then cleaning them up later so reviewers can more easily see how you've responded to their feedback.

See also How to manage your Git history: Tips for keeping your commits tidy and How (and why!) to keep your Git commit history clean

Fixing: I need to change a specific commit

<change file>
git add <file>

# Find the commit hash your change fixes
git log
# Marks the commit as fixing up another commit
git commit --fixup <hash>

# Somtime later when you are ready to cleanup your history, this will
# automatically move your commit just after <hash> and squash it into <hash>
git rebase --autosquash master

See also Auto-squashing Git Commits and How (and why!) to keep your Git commit history clean

Tip: You can turn on --autosquash by default with git config --global rebase.autosquash true

Fixing: I need to add/remove/combine/split/re-order commits

git rebase -i let's you edit your commit history in your $EDITOR of choice

Note: things get funky when merge commits are used. Another reason not to use them.

Just type:

git rebase -i master

And your commit history and instructions on editing it will pop up

pick 6e73d55c6 chore(nest): Baseline version of
pick 6aed59e08 chore(nest): Strip nipg down to essentials

# Rebase 1d9e1a08d..6aed59e08 onto 1d9e1a08d (2 commands)
# Commands:
# p, pick <commit> = use commit
# r, reword <commit> = use commit, but edit the commit message
# e, edit <commit> = use commit, but stop for amending
# s, squash <commit> = use commit, but meld into previous commit
# f, fixup <commit> = like "squash", but discard this commit's log message
# x, exec <command> = run command (the rest of the line) using shell
# b, break = stop here (continue rebase later with 'git rebase --continue')
# d, drop <commit> = remove commit
# l, label <label> = label current HEAD with a name
# t, reset <label> = reset HEAD to a label
# m, merge [-C <commit> | -c <commit>] <label> [# <oneline>]
# .       create a merge commit using the original merge commit's
# .       message (or the oneline, if no original merge commit was
# .       specified). Use -c <commit> to reword the commit message.
# These lines can be re-ordered; they are executed from top to bottom.
# If you remove a line here THAT COMMIT WILL BE LOST.
# However, if you remove everything, the rebase will be aborted.
# Note that empty commits are commented out

Once you've modified the "file", save and close and your history will be rewritten.

See also How to manage your Git history: Tips for keeping your commits tidy and How (and why!) to keep your Git commit history clean

Tip: By default, $EDITOR is VIM which works for me. For anyone else, you can change the editor, for example to switch to VS Code, type git config --global core.editor "code --wait".