How to: git

How to: git

This guide will explain how to use git more efficiently, and why you should use it as such.


When working in a team, there's generally a remote server which is used to sync your repositories. There are gratis services, such as GitHub, Gitlab, GOGS, and others. These services also allow you to fork a repository. This basically makes a copy of the entire repository for your own use. In it, you have full control over the branches, tags, merge process and everything else you want to do with it.

One the main reasons to do this is so you do not have to clutter up the main repository with a ton of branches (these are explained later in the post). If there are two people working in the same branch, it can help reduce conflicts, as each developer is working on the branch in his own fork.

As such, always use a fork. If the service does not have a fancy button for you to click, you can still fork manually. Simply clone their repository as usual, set a new remote and push it there:

git clone git@domain.tld:them/repo.git
cd repo
git remote rename origin upstream
git remote add origin git@domain.tld:you/repo.git
git push origin master

The default naming convention uses upstream for the base of your fork, and origin for your remote version of the repository. If a merge request is accepted on the original repo, you can apply it to your fork using

git pull upstream master


Branching is the art of using separate branches to introduce new code into your master branch. Every git repository starts with a master branch by default. This is the main branch of your repository.

Every time you want to add new code to your project, make a branch for the feature or issue you are trying to solve. This way, you can commit freely without having to worry about having untested or possibly broken code in the master branch. If something were to come up with a higher priority, such as a critical bug, you can simply create a new branch off of master, fix it and merge that back into master, without having to worry about that other feature you were working on, which is not in a releasable state yet. Once the fix is applied, you go back to your feature branch on continue working on the cool new stuff you wanted to implement. Now, the bug is fixed, and no code has been released that should not have been released. If that's not convincing enough, try some of the Stack Overflow posts on this very topic.

Branches can be made at your leisure, with next to no overhead on your project. Do not be scared to play around with your code in a new branch to test something out. You can also delete branches as quickly as you made them if you are not satisfied with the result.

Creating branches is done using git checkout -b new-branch. If you need to switch to another existing branch to change something, use git checkout other-branch. Deleting a branch can be done using git branch -D old-branch. You can get a list of all branches in the repository with git branch. The current branch is marked with an *.

If you start a new branch to implement a feature, be sure to always branch off of master, unless you have a very compelling reason not to do so. If you are not sure what reasons would validate branching off of another branch, you should just branch off of master. If you branch off of another branch, you will have the commit history of the other branch. This often includes commits not accepted into master yet, which might result into commits getting into master which should not be there (yet), or annoying merge conflicts later on.


Using multiple branches brings along the concept of merging branches together. When working in a group, this is generally done by maintainers of the upstream repository, via a merge request. For some reason, certain services have named this as a pull request instead. The base idea of the process is as follows:

  • Pull the latest upstream/master
  • Create a new branch
  • Apply the change you want
  • Issue a merge request via the service you are using
    • Generally, you want your change to be merged into their master branch
  • Add a title and a description of your change: What does it do, and why should it be accepted
  • Optionally, discuss the changes with the upstream maintainers
  • Optionally, make a couple of changes to your branch, and push it again
  • Upstream maintainer accepts your change

When everything worked out, the upstream repository now contains your changes. If you pull their branch again, it will contain your code. Using the merge request process, your code can be easily reviewed by others, and discussed if needed.


Whenever you have changed anything in the repository and you wish to share these changes, you have to commit the changes. Committing in general is not something people tend to have issues with. Simple add the changes you want to commit using git add (add the -p switch if you want to commit only parts of a changed file), then git commit and enter a descriptive message. And that is where most annoyances come from: the commit message. There are no hard rules on this forced by git itself. There are, however, some de-facto standards and best practices which you should always follow. Even if you never intend to share the repository with other people, having good commit messages can help you identify a certain change when you look back into the history.

A git commit message should be short, no more than 79 characters, on the first line. It should be readable as "this commit message will ...", where your commit message will replace the "...". It is a de-facto standard to start your commit message with a capital letter, and leave off a finishing period. You do not have to adhere to if you hate this, but be sure that all your commits are consistent in how they are formatted.

If you need to explain anything beyond that, such as a rationale for the change, or things the reviewer should pay attention to in this particular commit, you can leave an empty line and publish this message in the commit body.

When you are using a bug tracking system, you might also want to have a footer with additional information. On services such as Gitlab and GitHub, you can close issues by adding "Closes: #1" in the commit message footer. A full commit message with all these things might look as follows:

Fix overflow issue in table rendering mechanism

An overflow issue was found in the table rendering mechanism, as explained in
CVE-0123-45678. Regression tests have been included as well.

Closes: #35

In order to achieve these kind of messages, you need to be sure that your commits can fit in to this structure. This means you need to make small commits. Having many smaller commits makes it easier to review the changes, keep short, descriptive messages to describe each change, and revert a single change in case it breaks something.

Signing your commits

You can set up git to cryptographically sign each commit you make. This will ensure that the commit you made is proven to be from you, and not someone impersonating you. People impersonating you might try to get harmful code into a repo where you are a trusted contributor. Having all commits signed in a repository can contribute in verifying the integrity of the project.

Recently, Github has added the Verified tag to commits if the commit contains a correct signature.

To enable signing of all commits, add the following configuration to your ~/.gitconfig:

    gpgsign = true

    signingkey = 9ACFE193FFBC1F50

Ofcourse, you will have to update the value of the signingkey to match the key you want to sign your commits with.

Closing words

I hope this post will help you in your adventures with git. It is a great tool or working on projects together, but it gets much better when you stick to some best practices. If you have any suggestions for this post, or any questions after finishing it, contact me via any method listed on my home page.