Self Documenting Code and Meaningful Comments

05 Apr 2014 . software craftsmanship . Comments #code comments #clean code #code quality

Software is read many more times than it is written and it lives on longer than most people expect. Because of this we professional software developers have a responsibility to write readable and maintainable code. Certainly well-designed software will help both the readability and maintainability. But in addition to the software design, the types of comments that exist in a codebase also have a huge impact on its readability.

I have spent a significant amount of time working in both codebases where the team took a “well commented” approach as well as a “self documenting” approach with very few comments. After years of working in both types of baselines I find code with less comments and self documenting to be much easier to read and maintain.

Defining Self Documenting Code

Self documenting code is defined as code that explains itself without the need of extraneous documentation. It consists of a set of guidelines including giving methods and variables meaningful names, avoiding naming systems like hungarian notation, emphasizing important information, reducing unimportant information, and delaying optimization (among several others). You can read more about it here.

Self Documenting and Comments

It’s important to point out that the self documenting code style and applying comments to code are not mutually exclusive. At some point developers started thinking that self documenting code meant that no comments should exist in the codebase. The original intent of self documenting code was to have meaningful comments.

The reality is that the vast majority of comments found in code are completely unnecessary and actually detract from the readability of the software. In fact, most comments are an indicator that there is something wrong with the code.

When shifting focus to meaningful comments developers begin to find better ways to describe the code and stop using comments as a crutch. As these meaningless comments get refactored out of the codebase eventually what’s left is a codebase with very few comments.

Doubts?

I certainly had my doubts about self documenting code. I went through college being taught that well-commented code was part of being a software professional. When I first encountered a baseline with nearly no comments my initial reaction was to disagree that any code could be written well enough to not need more comments. After all,this was in opposition to what I was taught from the time I first started programming. After several years of working in that baseline and subscribing to the idea that I would try to change the code so I didn’t need the comment, I can honestly state that I was completely wrong.

Bob Martin sums up my feelings about comments best in his book Clean Code.

The proper use of comments is to compensate for our failure to express ourself in code.
Robert Martin, Clean Code, page 54

While he admits that some comments are necessary and beneficial he goes on to say…

The only truly good comment is the comment you found a way not to write.
Robert Martin, Clean Code, page 55

Comments can be beneficial but only after first trying to eliminate the need for the comment in the first place. Comments all too often are inaccurate, misleading, and developers struggle to keep them in sync with the software.

Unit Tests Instead of Comments

To an extent I agree with Dave Thomas, Andy Hunt, and Robert Martin. Comments that describe the intent of the developer are generally useful.

In general, comments should discuss why something is done, its purpose and its goal. The code already shows how it is done, so commenting on this is redundant.
— Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master, page 249

Bob Martin lists the following in a section of Clean Code entitled “Good Comments:”

Sometimes a comment goes beyond just useful information about the implementation and provides the intent behind a decision.

However, I would take this advice a step further. In a majority of cases documenting why something is done can be documented in a concise unit test case that clearly describes the intent of the software.
Let’s look at some other types of comments.

Meaningful Comments

In reality these meaningful comments are the exception not the rule. There shouldn’t be a need for a lot of meaningful comments in a codebase.

Optimized Code

Describing code that required some obfuscation to meet performance requirements. This is important because a developer might try to simplify this code in the future losing the performance gains in the refactoring. Bob Martin would include these in a category he calls “warning of consequences.” His example of a warning comment is a comment that indicates that a test is disabled because of how long it takes to run.

Amplifying importance

This is a category Bob Martin describes in Clean Code where you use a comment to amplify the importance of something that may seem inconsequential. I tend to categorize these with the types of comments that describe the developer’s intent. I’d prefer a unit test case for the important piece of code rather than commenting it. But if for some reason the unit test cannot convey the importance or you don’t have unit tests I feel that these are reasonable and helpful comments.

TODO comments

If I am working on a task and see something unrelated that I want to address, but I don’t want to get sidetracked, I’ll drop in a TODO comment and come back to it later. Several IDEs build task lists based on these TODO type comments so you don’t lose track of them. The important thing about TODO comments is to address them in a timely manner, otherwise you are just incurring technical debt and littering your codebase with comments.

Javadoc / XML Doc comments in APIs and public libraries

When developing a public API or a library for public use javadoc (or XML Doc for .NET) style comments are incredibly useful for the developers who are using the library.

Not So Meaningful Comments

Let’s get into the types of comments that I think should be replaced when encountered in code. Most comments are going to fall into this category.

Commenting how the code works

If a comment describes how the code works it’s either redundant or documenting a piece of complicated code which is an indicator that the code needs to be cleaned up. Refactoring blocks of code into well named methods and giving variables good semantic names will alleviate the need for the comment altogether. These types of comments end up being more trouble than they are worth and usually become bug breeding grounds. These comments violate the DRY principle so when the code is updated the comment must be updated as well.

Organizing sections of a function

If comments are used to describe multiple parts of a method or function, this is an indicator that the method is too large. These types of comments can be removed by extracting methods for the different sections and naming them well. If you need large methods in a class this can be an indicator that the class is too large. Take a look at the class and see if it has only one responsibility.

Organizing a class

Similar to the previous example if comments or (in .NET) regions exist to organize the class, this is a good indicator that the class is too large. Ensuring that the class has a single responsibility and having it delegate to other objects for other responsibilities will help eliminate the need for these types of comments.

Bug history

These types of comments include a bug Id from a bug tracking system and sometimes an explanation of what was changed in the code. If a developer looks at this comment in the future it will be meaningless without the context of what the code used to do. Really it is just destracting the reader from what the code is doing now. Let the VCS keep the history of the software modifications (that is its responsibility) and let developers look there. Put bug Ids in commit comments if that is helpful, not in source code.

File Edit History

These types of comments are the ones that document which developer changed which part of the code on what date. I’ve seen enormous class headers to track the file edit history. Again these types of comments I group into the same category as bug tracking comments. Let the VCS keep the history of which developer modified the code.

Javadoc / XML doc method headers in non-public code

I find these types of comments in internal code to be overkill and make reading the software an enormous chore. These comments violate the “Reduce Unimportant Information” guideline as huge blocks of comments are interspersed within the code. These comments in particular are supposed to help developers understand the code better but they instead insert huge gaps between executable code that breaks the readers’ focus. As I stated previously for APIs this type of documentation is invaluable and worth having but only on the public facing API. Internal code should avoid method headers entirely (whether it be for public or private methods).

Noise

There are some comments that just restate the name of the method, variable or property. If they aren’t identical then they are just rephrasing the names. I tend to categorize these with the method header comments as they tend to make reading the code much harder by having lots of these comments interspersed with executable code. These comments are the easiest to get rid of. Simply delete them and move on and watch the size of your classes shrink.

Commented out code

Commenting out code is fine when testing but it shouldn’t be committed. Again, let the VCS control the history of the source code modifications.

Exceptions

Obviously there are no absolutes in software developement. In general, if you try to eliminate the need for a comment and find that you can’t, you most likely have a reasonable comment. However, you should take a closer look at the code if you feel you need a lot of comments.

Credits

I’ve referenced Robert Martin’s Clean Code book several times in this post. That book has the most comprehensive coverage of “meaningful comments” than any other I’ve found. He has much more content about comments than I could cover here. He also describes the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) in detail in the book. If you are interested in writing well-designed, readable software I highly recommend reading it.
Robert Martin can be found online: