Peter Lyons

Oct 22, 2015

Tools for Cleaning Up Messy JavaScript

In my consulting work, I encounter a pretty high quantity and diversity of codebases as client projects flow in and out. For many reasons, it is very common for a project to get increasingly messy with time, and often by the time it drops in my lap, it's a certifiable mess.

Dealing with a mess can be a huge drag and productivity drain as even the simplest debugging investigation is rife with confusion, duplication, misdirection, etc. Here's a few quick tools tips to help get things organized and clean again.


If the overall code style is highly inconsistent or hard to read, it might make sense to hit it with a giant esformatter hammer and just force everything into a single style. The go programming language does this language-wide via gofmt. Keep these tips in mind:


I covered eslint in some detail in my previous post. Once you've got the code reasonably formatted and consistent, throw eslint at it to get a sense of where bugs and issues may lie. Often times you may be getting hundreds or thousands of errors and warnings. I think focusing on either the most frequent errors (codebase improves the most by fixing these) or least frequent (fixing these can get you to OK on a specific eslint rule quickly) are reasonable approaches. The key thing here psychologically for me is to not get overwhelmed and frustrated and hopeless.

One nice plugin that can help with initial analysis, triaging, and scheduling is eslint-stats which can make it easy to see which problems are most common.


True story. A client's codebase was uglified then autoformatted by a previous developer before delivery to the client as "source code". Thus at a glance it looked like source code as it had newlines and indenting, but all the variable names had been minified to single letters. This made it extremely difficult to read. One tool that helped us gradually get back to sanity was beautify with words which finds all those 1-letter variable names and generates a longer, unique, pronounceable (but otherwise gibberish) variable name for them. After that you can easily find and replace all once you understand what an appropriate semantic name for the variable is.


There's a really cool utility called grasp that parses javascript into an abstract syntax tree and allows you to programmatically alter that tree, then generate new source code. Lots of potential for interesting uses here, but so far I've only really used it for the use case of syntax-aware search and replace. The problem with generic text editor search and replace for variables is it will also change that name within a string or a comment or embedded within another word, etc. The bottom line is careless find/replace in a generic text editor can break your code. With grasp, you can tell it to replace just an identifier and it really knows what that means. For example, to rename a variable from user to account, we could do:

grasp '#user' --replace account

My workflow with grasp is as follows.

Keep It Clean

Hopefully these tools will help you out in the wild cleaning up messy codebases!