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Nicolas Carlo
Nicolas Carlo

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

Introducing a refactoring tool for VS Code

This article was originally written for my personal blog.
I am republishing it here for the DEV community.

I use VS Code every day. I use it exclusively since February 2018, both personally and professionally. I like it a lot.

But I am frustrated.

I am frustrated because I miss a great tool to perform automated refactorings for me. And neither VS Code, neither existing extensions provide the experience I'm looking for!

Thus, 2 months ago, I decided to follow my own advice and hack my own problem. I started creating the VS Code extension I was looking for. This extension analyzes my code, suggests refactorings and executes them with the minimal amount of keystrokes needed.

It helps me focus on my intention instead of manually following the scripted mechanics of a refactoring.

I called this extension: Abracadabra

Gif of extracting variables with Abracadabra

Why wasn't I satisfied with VS Code refactorings?

It's true that VS Code ships with basic refactoring operations. So what's wrong?

Well, speaking from a personal point of view, few things aren't great:

  • I need more than that. There are a lot of automated refactorings that I know and aren't proposed.
  • I can't just have the cursor on a variable and trigger an extraction. To get an appropriate suggestion requires selecting exactly the code to refactor. I need to select the whole extracted statement first, which is slowing me down.
  • I don't like the UX much. Talking about extraction, I often feel confused in front of all the suggested options. I need to play the computer in my head and decipher what "enclosing scope" vs. "module scope" means in terms of the resulting code. I know that there is a better way.

VS Code shows a popup to either "extract to function in module scope", or to "extract to constant in enclosing scope"

I understand what it means, but it takes precious seconds to process. Don't make me think!

Before using VS Code exclusively, I used Webstorm professionally for a few years. And I prefer VS Code: it's free, feels lighter to use and has a very active community.

But there is one thing Webstorm nailed that VS Code doesn't provide: many, intuitive, automated refactorings.

Gif of extracting a function in Webstorm

List of available refactorings in Webstorm

This made me so productive back in the days. I relied on my editor to move fast 🏇

And I think it matters. If refactoring code takes 2 keystrokes I'm very likely to do it. If I have to find the correct combination of 5 keystrokes to make it work, I'm less likely. If I have to do it by hand… You get the idea.

Great automated refactorings are a productivity boost for every developer.

But wait, wasn't there an extension already?

Yes! And I used it for some time.

I essentially work with JavaScript (and TypeScript). If you search for "JS refactoring" on VS Code Marketplace, you'll find a promising extension called "JS Refactor":

I appreciate the good efforts that were put in it. At least someone worked to provide more refactorings, shared that for free and maintained it 👏👏

But at this point, it was not exactly what I needed, for a few reasons:

  • I needed more refactorings operations. I'd consider operations like "Add Export", "Negate Expression" or "Wrap Selection" not being "refactorings". Even if they're handy, they modify code behavior.
  • Also, sometimes, it didn't work well. It had some hiccups working on classes or on TypeScript.
  • It handles partial selection better than VS Code, but it was still not as smooth as I was looking for. The UX was not the one I expected.

At that point, the best move for me would have been:

OK, maybe I can contribute and improve it!

Heading to the repository, I was really happy to see it seemed well tested 👍

But I felt the architecture was not quite what I'd have in mind. I'd have done abstractions differently…

Now, I'm not saying this is bad and I know better. Actually, I think the code is quite clean and well tested. But I started imagining how I'd build such solution, and I had this desire to make it happen. In fact, it would be a great opportunity for me to work on something where I could try things, fast, to scratch my own itch.

Sure, building another extension is not the best idea, community wise. For the greater good, I should have reached the author of the existing extension and see how could I help. And, at some point, I'll probably ping him to see how I could help, now that I've a clearer idea of how all of this could work.

But for the moment, I wanted to build something on my own. Not to replace the existing extension, but to try something different. Something aligned with what I needed. Without having to deal with existing code and users.


That's why, 2 months ago, I started to build this extension.

My goal is essentially to build the tool I'm missing.

There is a very cool side-effect of this: the learning part. Digging into Abstract Syntax Trees manipulations is super interesting. Also, I'm discovering how to build a VS Code extension for the first time. Finally, it's a playground for me to test architectural decisions and practices, like documenting architectural decisions through ADRs.

I implemented a couple of refactorings across these 2 months. I published the extension a few days ago on the Marketplace.

Now I'm waiting for feedback to improve these first refactorings, fix edge cases and improve the UX to match what I'd expect from a great extension!

GitHub logo nicoespeon / abracadabra

Automated refactorings for VS Code (JS & TS) ✨ It's magic ✨

🧙‍ Abracadabra

All Contributors Build Status

Abracadabra is a Visual Studio Code extension that brings you automated refactorings for JavaScript and TypeScript.

Our goal is to provide you with easy-to-use, intuitive refactorings. They help you clean the code and understand what's going on.

Refactoring (noun): a change made to the internal structure of software to make it easier to understand and cheaper to modify without changing its observable behavior.

"Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code" by Martin Fowler

Gif showing refactoring operations this extension can do

Related projects:

  • Hocus Pocus, a VS Code extension that creates useful things for you, in JavaScript and TypeScript.

Table of Contents

What about you?

Well first, if you do JavaScript or TypeScript and you're looking for great automated refactorings, you can give Abracadabra a try!

Then, if you want to help me, you can:

  • Give me your feedbacks on what you like and what you'd like to improve. Whether you find a bug, have a suggestion or just want to share something, have a look at existing issues or open a new one.
  • If you'd like to contribute, you can start with the "Good First Issues" I've listed. Any kind of contribution is welcomed 🙂
  • Spread the word so I can get more use-cases and more feedbacks to improve the extension!

That's it. I'm really excited about this and happy to start spreading the word.

Now, I feel better.

Top comments (2)

abulka profile image
Andy Bulka

Nice job - I can't imagine the work that went into something like this - traversing AST trees etc.

I'm still learning where to put the cursor to get the right refactorings to appear - I wish that was a bit more flexible or obvious.

mathieucollet profile image

Very nice job dude !
Make Abracadabra avaible for PHP and you will be my hero !