Writing Better Pull Requests

December 01, 2021

Over the last year, I've become more thoughtful about the code I write and how quickly it gets merged. Wanting to improve on this process, I re-evaluated some of my soft skills such as how I write pull requests. Instead of focusing on how fast I could write, I worked towards making the review process easier. The goal of a PR is to introduce a change and this is my guide to making a good first impression.

Recognizing Difficult PRs

The path to writing better PRs starts with being able recognize the difficult ones. Here a few of the key identifiers I look for:

  • Overwhelming amounts of changes
  • Little to no documentation
  • Large commits with many changes
  • Poor commit messages

Advantages of a well written PR

A well written PR will impact the past, present, and future codebase that your project utilizes. Here are some of the advantages of a well written PR.

  • Reduce time for reviews! Your reviewers will thank you for making their lives easier
  • Reduce cognitive load
  • Educate co-workers on your team and outside of your team on how something works
  • Reduce code oversights and bugs
  • Serve as a refresher after the PR has been merged or become stale
  • A great resource when writing documentation

PR Writing Checklist

Through trial and error, I've formed a list of what works best for my PR writing process. I highly recommend trying each of these areas out and see what works best for your workflow.

Descriptive Titles

Write a descriptive title with good keywords for future search-ability.

Helpful Resources

Make sure to include the link to the issue or any additional resources a reviewer may need to reference. I typically like to include an issue link at the very top of the PR.

PR Description

Document the change you're introducing and explain why. This could be as simple as listing off some features you're introducing and re-stating the the problem you're solving. The description should give the reviewer a clear idea of the big picture along with key updates. You do not need to write a novel.

Testing Environment

If additional setup is required such as setting up an API key, or modifying the dev environment in any way, include a section for it. This section can also be useful for sharing staging or production configuration details.

How to Test Steps

Providing easy to follow along testing steps will make your code changes easier to verify for reviewers of all skill levels and familiarity. It's important to remember testing steps serve as documentation for what you did and did not test for. This can be helpful for highlighting edge-cases you didn't consider.

I try to write testing steps while verifying the PR right before I set to "ready for review". Also, I like to include additional resources such as a test branch, images, videos, and gifs as needed.

Screen Captures and Supporting Visuals

Include visual elements such as screen captures, gifs, and sometimes videos with a short description. Sharing these resources helps the visual aspect and makes it more obvious the reviewer should expect to see.

I frequently share before and after screen captures with a brief description when possible. This helps breakup large amounts of content too!

Visual hierarchy

Using appropriate headings, dividers, and other content components to reduce reader fatigue.

I typically go for better skim-ability. The more obvious the structure, the quicker the reviewer can locate what they need to reference while testing.

Small Commits

Utilizing small commits with meaningful descriptions can be incredibly helpful for yourself and reviewers. Here are some reason why:

  • Some reviewers prefer to step through commits to get the bigger picture
  • Small commits make the history easy to alter with rebase or cherry-picking
  • Detailed commit descriptions serve as resource for explaining code complex choice in the PR as well as commit history

I recommend writing full commits using git commit instead of the message inline git commit -m "message". To make this easier, you can write your commit message using your code editor of choice and use git preview changes in commit message. These two features combined will aid greatly in writing clean and focused commits!.

Make sure your PR is focused

The smaller a PR is, the easier it will be for a reviewer to stay focused. Consider the amount of thought needed for 1 line change PR and a 50+ file PR. Which one are you more likely to review immediately? Which one are you less likely overlook an unwanted code change or bug? Keeping a PR streamlined only to specific goals is an art form which will play a huge role in keeping reviewers focused. If there are features that can be broken out into smaller PRs, the time saved reviewing can be worth it.

I prefer to break up large PRs by using a primary feature branch and then merging much smaller PRs into it. Once all of the pieces have been merged, the overall approval is much easier since we trust the code up to this point. Previous PRs are also great resources for documenting the changes on the large PR.

Don't forget the little things

  • Check spelling and grammar, write PRs in a program with spellcheck if needed
  • Use formatting elements such as bold, italic, strike through, and backticks etc...
  • Add comments on the code lines if needed to explain a decision or ask questions
  • Always re-read and verify the testing steps
  • Don't assume! Use a language that speaks to your audience and their skill level

I hope you found this article helpful! The steps outlined here have greatly improved how quickly my PRs get reviewed and approved.

Micheal England

Article by Micheal England.