Become a master at Git with these 8 best practices: Set-up, commit messages, git workflow, tags, and shortcuts.

  1. Set up Git
  2. Associate your text editor with Git
  3. Work on one issue at a time
  4. Write clear commit messages
  5. Provide placeholders for files ignored by .gitignore
  6. Find your Git workflow
  7. Use version tags
  8. Become a Git master

Never used Git before? Get your hands dirty with this super newby-friendly Git tutorial:

1. Set up Git

  1. Set your username
    Set with git config --global "YOUR NAME"
    Verify with git config --global
    Source: Set your username in Git
  2. Set your email address
    Set with git config --global ""
    Verify with git config --global
    Source: Set your email in Git
  3. Make sure that line endings are configured correctly
    Set git config --global core.autocrlf input (Linux, OS X)
    Set git config --global core.autocrlf true (on Windows)
    Source: Handle line endings in Git

2. Associate your text editor with Git

If you are using Atom, you can quickly tell Git to use Atom for commit messages.

$ git config --global core.editor "atom --wait"

For other editors and more info, see associating text editors with Git.

3. Work on one issue at a time

Each change, addition, or removal you make to your code (adding a controller, modifying a model) should go into its own commit with its own clear commit message. The only exception is if two pieces of code are very closely related and updating both at the same is the only thing that makes sense. For example, if your code would otherwise break.

Working (and committing) one issue at a time will make it possible for others to understand what is going on. And make it much easier to fix bugs later.

With Git, it’s easy to explicitly review what you are about to commit:

  1. git add --patch to add changes to the index
  2. git diff --cached to do a review of what you are about to commit
  3. git commit to execute the commit (this will open your editor for you to write a clear commit message!)
  4. Repeat from step 1 until you have committed everything (or the remaining uncommitted changes need further work).


4. Write clear commit messages

  1. Every commit message should consist of a subject line and a body
  2. Line 1: Subject line
  3. Use imperative tense for the subject line: “Fix bug”, not “Fixed bug”
  4. Limit to 50 characters
  5. Capitalize the first word
  6. No full stop at the end
  7. Line 2: Blank line
  8. Line 3+: Body
  9. Use imperative, present tense: “Change”, not “Changed” or “Changes”
  10. Limit each line to 72 characters
  11. Include motivation for the change and contrast its implementation to the previous behavior (what and why, rather than how)

Here is an example from](

    Summarize changes in around 50 characters or less

    More detailed explanatory text, if necessary. Wrap it to about 72
    characters or so. In some contexts, the first line is treated as the
    subject of the commit and the rest of the text as the body. The
    blank line separating the summary from the body is critical (unless
    you omit the body entirely); various tools like ``log``, ``shortlog`` and
    ``rebase`` can get confused if you run the two together.

    Explain the problem that this commit is solving. Focus on why you
    are making this change as opposed to how (the code explains that).
    Are there side effects or other unintuitive consequences of this
    change? Here's the place to explain them.

    Further paragraphs come after blank lines.

    - Bullet points are okay, too

    - Typically a hyphen or asterisk is used for the bullet, preceded
    by a single space, with blank lines in between, but conventions
    vary here

    If you use an issue tracker, put references to them at the bottom,
    like this:

    Resolves: #123
    See also: #456, #789`

Why use the imperative tense? Because when someone is about to apply your commits to their code, it will tell them what your commits will do rather than telling them what they did. Moreover, it also matches Git-generated messages such as ‘Merge’ and ‘Rebase’.

Why add a short, descriptive subject line? Because it will allow people to skim through your commits using git log --oneline and quickly find the commit that they are searching for.

Pro Tip 1: Sometimes subject-only commit messages are sufficient. In those cases you can use git commit -m "Your 50-character commit message" to write a commit without using any text editor.

Pro Tip 2: You can amend an unpublished commit message by typing git commit --amend (more on that here)

5. Provide placeholders for files ignored by .gitignore

This allows the user to get started with your project more quickly. They can just rename or reconfigure a few sample placeholder files, rather than manually digging through your code to see what files and variables they need.

If, for example, you are using the Rails Dotenv gem, you may want to provide a default .env.example that is checked into source control. This should list all the environment variables that can be defined and provides explanations for each.

Minimize ignored files crucial for operation. Try to keep the count of ignored files, that a user will need to execute your project locally, to a minimum.

6. Find your Git workflow

There is no one way to use Git for your project. Your usage will depend on whether you are developing on your own, in a small team, or in a large open source project.

Generally, it is agreed that the master branch should always be ready for deployment. That means that development does not happen on that branch itself.

Instead, create a branch called development that reflects the new code being worked on: git checkout -b development

Even now, committing directly to the development branch should be avoided. Instead, create a new branch from the development branch for new features and bug fixed. Assign them a name that clearly summarizes the feature or bug fix that you are working on. Examples are email-notifications, user-avatars, or single-sign-on.

$ git checkout development
$ git branch email-notifications
$ git checkout email-notifications

Workflow: Merging

When we merge a new feature into our development branch, there are two scenarios to consider:

  1. We have only made minor modifications, so we do not need to keep a separate history of the branch (scenario #1)

  2. We have developed a full new feature, so we do want to keep a history of this branch in its entirety (scenario #2)

Scenario #1: Fast forward

Minor modifications are bug fix, spelling mistakes, and other changes affecting just a few lines of codes. There is no change in functionality or design.

The --ff-only option forces a fast forward, so that your new branch won’t clutter the git history. But in order for the fast forward to succeed, you first need to rebase your branch to point to the most recent version of the development branch.

$ git rebase development YOUR_BRANCH_NAME
$ git checkout development
$ git merge YOUR_BRANCH_NAME --ff-only

Scenario #2: True Merge

New features are substantial changes that introduce new functionality, capabilities, or design to a project.

The --no-ff option forces a true merge, retaining the separate branch history.

$ git checkout development
$ git merge YOUR_BRANCH_NAME --no-ff

Workflow: Additional Resources

  1. I am working on two new blog posts: One on Solo Git Workflow and one on Team Git Workflow. Stay tuned!
  2. Read more about Git workflow on Github.
  3. Here is an absolutely excellent article on Git workflow using master, development, release, hotfix, and feature branches.
  4. See this great article by Christophe Porteneuve on when to merge and when to rebase.

7. Use version tags

Tags are mostly used to specify version numbers that go along with your code.

To add a basic tag to your last commit, do this:

$ git tag v1.4.3
# Tags the last commit with 'v1.4.3'

You can also create an annotated tag using:

$ git tag -a v1.4.3
# Opens the editor to allow you to create a message to go with your tag

To tag a past commit, specify the commit checksum:

$ git log --oneline
# c6798fe Add Projects to Blog (PR #11)
# ccf9022 Add projects layout file, Green Naropa project, and images
# d39c2f6 Add collection of type 'project'
# ece9068 Exclude canonical tag from HTML Proofer
# 97655a4 Update site's url to
# ...
$ git tag v1.2.0 c6798fe
# Adds tag v1.2.0 to commit c6798fe (Add Projects to Blog (PR #11))

Tags are not automatically pushed to Github. To push tags, do git push --tags.

To list all tags, do git tag or filter tags with git tag -l some_search_query.

Renaming tags

Accidentally added the wrong tag?

Rename a tag using:

$ git tag new_tag tags/old_tag
# Creates a new tag for the same commit as old tag
$ git tag -d tags/old
# Deletes the old tag

If you already pushed the old tag to Github, no problem. Use these commands to remove the old tag and push the new one:

$ git push origin :old_tag
# Removes the old tag from Github
$ git push --tags
# Pushes the new tag to Github

8. Become a Git master

Github has a handy two-page cheat sheet with the most common Git commands: Git Cheat Sheet

Here are some additional commands:

  1. git log branch_a...branch_b: lists all commits since branch_b split off branch_a. For example: git log master...development. If branch_b is omitted, simply show all commits since branch_a.
  2. git log --oneline: lists a log of past commits, showing only their first lines
  3. git log -some_number: limit the log to some number of past commits. For example: git log -2 will only show the log for the last two commits.
  4. git log -p: Go through the past commits and show changes made.
  5. Learn more formatting options for viewing the Git commit history. How about git log --pretty=format:"%h - %an, %ar : %s" to show date and author name of each commit?

Featured Image Credits: Git Logo by Jason Long is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.