From confusion to clarity: 5 key practices for improving code readability

October 4, 2023 – Reading time: 11 minutes

Navigating the world of code may appear daunting. However, understanding code doesn’t have to feel like deciphering an alien language, even if one has never ventured into the world of programming before. Through this article, we aim to break down the barriers and unveil the simplicity behind code readability with five key practices, making it welcoming and understandable for people of all backgrounds, not just those well-versed in the intricacies of coding.

Developers spend a significant amount of time reading code. With the ratio of code reading to code writing exceeding 10:1[1], prioritizing writing for readability can offer a high return on investment. For those unfamiliar with the subject, code readability refers to the extent to which code can be comprehended by developers, primarily as a result of its logical structure and the anticipated outcome it conveys. The benefit of having readable code is that it reduces bugs, maintains high development speed, eases maintenance and reuse, and enhances the entire software lifecycle. Hence, code readability is a vital quality metric, making it a skill which every software developer should acquire and master.

While the importance of code readability cannot be overstated, it is not taught in university courses or books. For many companies, readability is either overlooked or plays a minor role, making it a constant pain point in most projects. To take advantage of code readability’s positive impact on project development, both management and software developers should prioritize readability during the development phase and verify it through code reviews or static code analysis.

Although the implementation of creating highly readable code can vary, there are 5 key practices every programmer should follow.

Appropriately name variables

A good programmer must always use descriptive, domain specific names and abbreviations wisely. An example of a large and impractical variable name is, “NumberOfIncrementationCyclesInLastReadVariable”, so it’s best to keep names short and sweet. Also, refrain from overusing abbreviations since these can be confusing, especially for someone studying foreign code.

Whenever variables are used, their names must be self-explanatory with a clear purpose. This entails using popular naming conventions like camelCase, PascalCase, and underscore, as opposed to naming variables or methods with keywords. Similarly, avoid using “magic numbers” or hard coded numerical values as they are difficult to modify and can lead to confusion for others beyond the code’s author. The goal should always be to minimize errors and optimize work.

Abstraction over implementation and DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself)

Abstraction allows us to conceal unnecessary details and provide only relevant information in the code. Disregard adding irrelevant and complicated information that won’t benefit the reader.

With abstractions, the code can be reused across multiple methods as long as the method arguments and their functionalities remain consistent. Only a single instance of action is required to address any issues or necessary changes, saving the developer a significant amount of time and effort.

The principle DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself)[2] also advocates for conserving cognitive energy by avoiding repetition and focusing on more substantial challenges. To follow this principle, it is essential to create effective abstractions and reusable functions for repeated tasks. Additionally, create more consistent. However, always be mindful not to over-optimize your code to the extent that it becomes challenging for others to understand.

YAGNI (You Aren’t Gonna Need It)

Precisely defining the problem and requirements is the first step to effectively address any situation. After precisely defining the problem and requirements, the next step is to break down the issue into smaller, more manageable segments.

To create code that is understandable and well-documented, there are a few things to keep in mind. Always opt for the simplest solution that satisfies the criteria. Thoroughly test and debug at the early stages to swiftly identify and correct bugs, thereby avoiding complications during the final development stages. And lastly, refactor and improve when needed.

At the end of the day, the goal is not to overcomplicate the code but instead make it understandable to everyone. As the famous saying by Albert Einstein goes, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.” The YAGNI[3] principle follows the same ideology, insisting that a functionality should be added only when it is necessary.

Maintain consistent indentation, formatting, and noise removal

According to Douglas Crockford, “It turns out that style matters in programming for the same reason that it matters in writing. It makes for better reading.”[4]

Following Crockford’s advice on writing readable code, always aim to maintain a consistent indentation style throughout your code. This makes complex code easier to read especially when there are multiple nested cases. Furthermore, it is essential to limit the length of code lines and text to enhance readability, making the code more manageable. The eyes find it easier to read vertical columns of text like the ones found in newspapers.

Likewise, unnecessary repetition of comments, methods, variables should be dropped. Don’t give comments for obvious statements. Comments should not tell us what we already know but instead they ought to explain why certain things are occurring. Also, writing multiple lines of comments is bad practice that a good developer should refrain from doing. A one-line remark should be all one needs to clarify what the code is doing.

Gain fresh perspectives through code reviews

The code’s author can be a poor judge to evaluate readability due to their deep involvement and intimate familiarity with the problem at hand. Another person or team member can offer a fresh set of eyes to the code. They may notice issues or improvements that you might have overlooked, and therefore contribute to the overall quality assurance efforts. By catching issues early, they help ensure that the final product meets quality and performance standards.

When the code is well-written and easily understandable, those providing feedback should require minimal, if any, clarifying questions to comprehend its functionality and purpose. As Cory House puts it, “Code is like humor. When you have to explain it, it’s bad.”

Better collaboration and project success

In essence, code readability guidelines serve as a foundation for efficient collaboration, increased developer productivity, and the longevity of software projects. For developers, following readability guidelines promotes a deeper understanding of code logic, leading to improved problem-solving skills and code quality. It fosters a sense of ownership and pride in their work, boosting job satisfaction and overall morale. Moreover, readable code facilitates smoother onboarding for new team members, accelerating their integration into projects. Investing in these principles would allow both developers and companies to create a positive and thriving development environment while delivering reliable, high-quality software products to their users.

At INVENSITY, we are dedicated to helping businesses tackle code readability problems head-on. We offer training and workshops on coding standards, best practices, and techniques for writing clean and readable code. Additionally, we provide code review assistance to enhance your development team’s skills and track progress. Don’t let code readability issues hinder your company’s success; optimize your software development practices with us today!


[1] Robert C. Martin (2009), Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

[2] Hunt, Andrew; Thomas, David (1999). The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master

[3] Ronald E. Jeffries, Ann Anderson, Chet Hendrickson (2001): Extreme Programming Installed

[4] Douglas Crawford (2016)- JavaScript: The Good Parts


  • Saylee Shimpi

    Associate Consultant

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