6 Anal-Retentive Ways To Improve Your C# Code

Nothing irks me more than to have to dig through garbage code.  Working at a software consulting company, I’ve seen a whole slew of it.  And I’ve hurled on my computer monitor enough as a result to give it a pretty, brownish-green tint.  Bad code destroys hardware.  And souls.

The single biggest clue that a developer either has no idea what they are doing or simply doesn’t care about their code is inconsistency.  We all have different preferences and coding styles, but when a developer can’t pick a particular approach to take they come off as incredibly amateur, and for good reason.  Inconsistent code is difficult to read, and is thus difficult to modify in the future.

The majority (or even the entirety) of the list below revolves around writing consistently styled and consistently performing C# code.  Much of this list is admittedly anal retentive, but all of it is guaranteed to improve the quality and readability of your code.

1.  Use the Code Analysis features in Visual Studio.

The Code Analysis features are anal retentive by nature, as you quickly discover when you begin to use them for the first time.  They are, however, worth their weight in gold; they are the most immediately effective way to improve your C# code.

Each time you build your code, Code Analysis will examine it to be sure that a large and growing list of “best practices” are met, and will create warnings in your Error List if they are not.  You cannot call your code “good” code unless it passes Visual Studio’s code analysis with flying colors.  There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between.

Enabling Code Analysis in your C# Visual Studio 2005 or 2008 project depends on whether you’re working with a Windows or Web application.

For a Windows application, go to your Solution Explorer and double-click the project’s Properties node.  From here, select the Code Analysis tab on the left hand side.  Check the Enable Code Analysis on Build check box, and you’re on your way.  You’ll notice that you can enable and disable any of the various checks individually, but I recommend leaving them all checked unless you’ve found a warning that you’re sure you can ignore.  As I’ve stated previously, the Code Analysis is almost always right.

For a Web application, go to your Solution Explorer and select the root node for your website.  Then go up to the Analyze menu and select Code Analysis Configuration.  From here, check the Enable Code Analysis on Build check box and you’re on your way.

2.  Use regions consistently and effectively.

Nobody likes digging through a huge code file to find a particular method, and C#’s regions help to solve this problem.  Here is an example:


#region Private Variables

private int x;
private int y;

#endregion

#region Public Properties

public int X
{
    get
    {
        return x;
    }
}

public int Y
{
    get
    {
        return y;
    }
}

#endregion

In Visual Studio, regions can be collapsed or expanded using the +/- buttons to the left of the region names in the code window. This helps to make it much easier to find a particular method you are looking for. There are many ways to organize your code with region statements, but I prefer to separate the code by type of construct (variables, constructors, event handlers, methods, properties, etc.) and access modifier (public, internal, protected, or private).

3.  Handle white space consistently.

C# ignores white space, which means you can put extra spaces and lines pretty much wherever you like.  Or, if you’re insane, you can jam ten-thousand lines of code into a very angry single line of actual text, separated only by semicolons.

Here are a few things to consider, though:

  • Code with more white space is generally much easier to read.  Less condensed code is easier on the eyes and with screen real estate being as ample as it is these days, there’s little reason to try and jam your code into as few lines as possible.  For the most part, bigger is better.
  • Even though code blocks, such as if and while statements, do allow you to omit the curly braces, this generally makes your code harder to read.  The general consensus is to always use curly braces even when there is only one line of code you are executing between them.
  • Consistency, consistency, consistency.  If you put new lines after you close blocks of code, be sure you do it everywhere.  Don’t “feel it out.”  Come up with your own strategy (preferably similar or the same to most other peoples’ strategies) and stick to it.

4.  Always specify your access modifiers and choose them carefully.

C# access modifiers are simply the public, internal, protected, and private keywords that you typically place in front of variables, properties, and methods.  Though these are often overlooked, they provide meaning to the functionality behind your code and help to better define the structure of your code through encapsulation.

Here are some grossly oversimplified definitions and uses for the four modifiers.  These definitions are lacking some detail, but should be plenty of information to handle the vast majority of circumstances:

Private members are only accessible to the class in which they live.  All variables, properties, methods, etc. that do not need to be accessed outside the immediate class should be marked as private.

Protected members are accessible to the class in which they live, as well as any classes that derive from (extend) the class.  The protected modifier should be used on variables, properties, methods, etc. that may need to be accessed by classes that may derive from (extend) the current class.

Internal members are accessible everywhere within the current project, but are inaccessible by other projects that might reference the current project.  In other words, using the internal modifier specifies that only classes within the current EXE or DLL file can access the member.  The internal modifier should be used on all variables, properties, methods, etc. that need to be available to other classes within the project, but should not be available outside the project.

Public members are accessible everywhere, period.  There are no restrictions to their access.  This particular modifier is often overused, as the internal modifier is overlooked.  The public modifier should only be used for members or classes that are or would possibly be needed outside of the current project.

As far as defining classes, typically only internal or public are used, depending on if they need to be accessible outside the project.  This, however, does not account for nested classes, which can have any of the four access modifiers.  Always specify your access modifiers to avoid confusion as to when and where the class or member can be used.

5.  Learn the ways to properly use exceptions and stick to them.

C# exceptions are extremely powerful and convenient, but when used incorrectly, they can both slow your application down and hinder output to the end user.

There are two basic rules of thumb to using exceptions properly:

  • Never catch an exception when you can check for and prevent the error instead.  A typical scenario is trying to open a file that you’re not entirely sure really exists.  You can wrap the file open code in a try catch, or you can use File.Exists to determine if the file exists before attempting to open it.  Exceptions in C# are expensive, so you only want an exception to be raised if a true error occurs.  If you can predict that it might happen for a particular reason, you should be able to check to make sure that it won’t happen before proceeding.  This will help to improve performance significantly.
  • Also, never catch the root Exception class, or any high-level, broad exception.  If you catch an Exception class, and you incorrectly assume that the user didn’t fill in a particular field as a result, the user will see your incorrect error message and be unable to see the actual error that occurred.  This is unacceptable.  Instead, research the methods you are calling to determine the particular types of exceptions they raise, and catch these specific exceptions.  This way, if something occurs that you didn’t expect, the end user will see the detailed error message anyway.  The MSDN documentation does a great job of providing you with all of the details you need regarding every exception that is possible for every single method in the .NET framework.

6.  ALWAYS use using statements.

In case you’re not familiar with the syntax of using statements, here is an example:


using (StreamWriter writer = new StreamWriter("C:\\file.txt"))
{
    writer.WriteLine("Hello!");
}

Using statements can be used wherever you’re instantiating an object that is IDisposable (can be disposed using the Dispose method).  If you don’t actively dispose objects that support the IDisposable interface, you’re asking for all sorts of performance and memory leak trouble.  Here are the advantages of using statements over calling the Dispose method directly:

  • Even if an exception is raised within your using statement block, the runtime will still ensure that the object gets properly disposed.  This is automatic with the using statement and is impossible without it.  Before using statements were added in .NET 2.0, you had to attempt to dispose of your objects within a catch block, which was far from error-prone.  Never take this approach.
  • Using statements help to visually define the scope of a variable that requires disposing.  You can quickly and easily see the start and end of the lifetime of the variable.  Once you are in the habit of consistently using using statements to dispose of objects you will very rarely (if ever) forget to dispose of an object, because of the block nature of the statement.
  • Using statements even allow you to return from a method within the statement.  The object is still disposed of properly in this situation.  In other words, if you use a using statement, the object is GUARANTEED to be disposed of despite any and all circumstances.  That’s a pretty big and valuable promise.

There is much more to writing good C# code than these 6 rules, but these are the rules that I see consistently broken that are driving me to an early grave.  Let me know in the comments if you think I’m missing something important or disagree with any of my statements.

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4 Responses to 6 Anal-Retentive Ways To Improve Your C# Code

  1. Josh says:

    Look into StyleCop (http://code.msdn.microsoft.com/sourceanalysis), it’s just as anal as code analysis except on code style (whitespace, comments, etc.). Another tool to add to clean code.

  2. Jason Carr says:

    Wow…I’ve been wondering about something like that for a long time. Thanks for the addition, Josh. :)

  3. Justin Chmura says:

    That thing is kind of neat. It does seem to be quite anal though.

  4. Jason Carr says:

    Haha…that thing?  Yes…anal it is, and anal it must be. ;)

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