Writing one-sentence-per-line


The notion of writing one-sentence-per-line may be confusing for many people – particularly for those who are not familiar to wysiwym systems (i.e. markdown, \(\TeX\),…). If you belong to this group, here’s a mini-tip: Don’t start your writing in a word processor. Whenever you learn new things or having an idea, and you want to jot it down, just open a text editor and write to a .txt file. Notepad are commonly available on every Windows machine – use that. There are several reasons worthy of another post, but here they are:

  • ms Word is a big and clunky application, while text editors open instantly and you can start writing right away. The snappier the program, the lower the friction to writing. Lower friction to writing means you write more.
  • Helps you focus on the contents of your writings. Text editors are simple, and you will learn to not be distracted by myriad options of document formatting.
  • Text files are easier to store and maintain. They don’t corrupt very often, if at all. Later on, when your writing piles get big, there are many tools that may help you organize them.
  • You can apply the suggestion made in this post.

Back to the topic. Instead of writing like:

This is the first sentence. This is the second sentence. Another one.

…you write like this :

This is the first sentence.
This is the second sentence.
Another one.

To be precise, the concept of line that I’m talking about is logical line, and not visual line. The popular concept of a line – a visual line – is the line that you see on printed documents. It ends when its lengths exceed the available width of the document. Whereas a logical line ends at a line break character, which you often insert with the Enter key.

So by “writing one-sentence-per-line”, I mean to insert a line break after each sentence, and write the next one at the beginning of the next logical line. Paragraphs are often denoted by an empty line or two consequent line breaks. You can think of it as “press Enter after each dot punctuation, and press Enter twice after each paragraph”.

The technical inspirations

Originally, writing one-sentence-per-line stems from techinical writings under version controlled systems, where every change is recorded for further assessment. Developers need a tool where they can quickly looks for changes, even small punctuation changes in hefty documents. The de-facto utility for this process is a program called diff, which compares two versions of a document and bring to attention the logical line where changes are made.

Consider I modify the word “second” in the example above to “2nd”:

This is the first sentence. This is the 2nd sentence. Another one.
This is the first sentence.
This is the 2nd sentence.
Another one.

Then output of diff will look like this:

--- before
+++ after
@@ -1,4 +1,4 @@
 This is the first sentence.
-This is the second sentence.
+This is the 2nd sentence.
 Another one.

…instead of this:

--- before
+++ after
@@ -1,2 +1,2 @@
-This is the first sentence. This is the second sentence. Another one.
+This is the first sentence. This is the 2nd sentence. Another one.

You can see that the changes I made are clearer when writing one-sentence-per-line.

Put aside the technicalities, I will explain the reason why I think writing this way is beneficial not just for technical writing, but for the general purpose of creative writing.

Lucid writings

Composing this way begets lucid writings, by highlighting the structure of your prose.

Proses consist of sentences – they are the smallest grammatical construct that can independently express an idea. Several sentences in the same theme are often put together, creating a paragraph.

The problem with paragraphs is that it is difficult to identify the sentence structure inside them. When writers write, they dive deep into their minds. It’s a meditative process that we all learned to love. Writing helps us explore our ideas, and instantiates them. The problem lies in a specific mechanism in this process: Our brain omits trivial details, and present to us the ideas as they appear in our heads – beautiful and alluring. Writers proceed to express these ideas by the act of writing proses. But proses are mundane. They are just arrangements of glyphs on a two-dimensional surface – be it paper or computer screen. In comparison to the complex apparatus that is our brains, they are indisputably inferior. To make their writings any fathomable, writers then need to ‘flatten’ their written ideas to a linear logical structure. This is the act of editing.

By putting each of your sentences in a separate line, you can quickly delineate the structure of your paragraph just by a glimpse: How many sentences are there in my paragraph? Are they short or long? What kind of rhythm do they make in your paragraph? Are the sequences of sentences coherent? Try swapping the sentences around. What important details have been omitted by your brain? Include them in. Is any point worthy of extrapolation? Split the paragraph into multiples and develop them further.

You can see the three main action of editing here: swapping, adding, and spliting sentences. All of these tasks are much easier when you organize your texts in a one-sentence-per-line manner.

A remedy to writer’s block

The second reason is more psychological, and perhaps also more anecdotal. I believe that one-sentence-per-line writing can really help with writer’s block. Here’s the definition from the Wikipedia page:

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author is unable to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.

Or as Mike Rose (1980) eloquently put it:

[…]that frustrating, self-defeating inability to generate the next line, the right phrase, the sentence that will release the flow of words once again.

Rose also highlighted the importance of having a set of heuristic rules that is more “open” than “closed”, i.e. more flexible when problems arise when writing. I believe writing one-sentence-per-line is one of those rules. There are, of course, many determiners to writer’s block. Here I delve into the one that most relates to new writers: the sense of failure.

Because writing is the ultimate manifestation of thoughts, written prose may become something like an extended self to writers. The more writers try to write perfectly, the more they get personally attached to their writings. When you don’t believe that the things you write are going to represent you (and trust me, they won’t), you hesitate to even put them into existence.

But writings are merely an approximation of your thoughts. They consumed little of your physical energy, and you probably are going to heavily edit them later, if they may come to publishment.

When I write each sentence in a line, the sentiment towards my writings is unveiled. My writings are not me. They are just objects, arranging in a particular structure, trying to convey me. It’s my job now to help them achieve that purpose.

And then I started to write more.


That, I think, is how a trivial change in habit helped me overcoming the writing struggle. You might try them out, or you might not. But I hope I shined a new light on how you see composing, so that you find it more tractable, or perhaps more interesting.


Rose, Mike. 1980. “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.” College Composition and Communication 31 (4). National Council of Teachers of English:389–401. https://doi.org/10.2307/356589.