Coding prose

I am trying a new experiment. I am commiting my daily work to github. Not a huge change, but it requires some workflow adjustements.

I am trying git for writing fiction. That means committing my work as I go, but specially with every significant update.

I remember reading somewhere about breaking paragraphs into multiple lines when writing markdown. This takes advantage of the fact that markdown requires two new line characters to mark a new paragraph.

The thing about git is that commits changes are tracked per line. That means changing a single letter, or adding a comma, is tracked as a whole paragraph change.

So instead of writing contiguous paragraphs, each sentence could be entered in a different line. Git will then track changes on each of the single line.

So instead of writing a single paragraph:

I am trying a new experiment. I am commiting my daily work to github Not a huge change, but it requires some workflow adjustements.

I could write instead each sentences on different lines:

I am trying a new experiment.
I am commiting my daily work to github.
Not a huge change, but it requires some workflow adjustements.

This is apparently called “ventilated prose”, “semantic linefeeds”, or simply "one sentence per line. And you are right to think it looks like poetry.

Here is the reaction to a document written in this style way bak in 1936:

When the re-written report was submitted, the Director said, “This is lucid, but it is poetry, and I cannot possibly hand it to the President of the Corporation for submission to the Board of Directors.” I insisted that it was obviously not poetry, since both he and I knew how I had chopped up a conventional prose report. The Director said, “I am having two poets for dinner tonight and I will take this to them and see what they say.” He returned the next day and said, “It’s too bad — it’s poetry.”

from the preface of “No More Second-Hand God” by Buckminster Fuller

Advantages?

By starting a new line at the end of each sentence, and splitting sentences themselves at natural breaks between clauses, a text file becomes far easier to edit and version control. Text editors are very good at manipulating lines — so when each sentence is a contiguous block of lines, your editor suddenly becomes a very powerful mechanism for quickly rearranging clauses and ideas.

Semantic Linefeeds

It might take awhile to adjust, but something intriguing is that now it is very easy to see the distribution of long and short lines. Which is great if we want to focus on style.

Lastly, it might make things easier to edit:

The experts on writing are unanimous about the importance of revising, revising again, and yet more revising. But what are you supposed to do? Eyeball the text till you are blue in the face? Sure that helps, especially if you can afford to leave it till the next day, or week, or month.

But with my new method I have something to do right after that messy first draft: I edit the mess into ventilated format. It’s fast (especially if you use the “vi” text processor), yet it forces me to go over every word. It immediately shows up sentences that got too long or have an awkward structure. I rarely have to puzzle about how to rewrite.

Ventilated Prose | A Programmers Place

I do think that it hurts readability to some degree. Btw, Wikipedia hates it (see Do not use single line breaks)

I need to think more about this. Something that I would love a code writing repository that tracks changes at a word level. With tags but no commit messages (or even better: autocommits per word).

Now, off to learn vi so I can truly crank up efficient line writting and editing.

More references:

January 5, 2021

Sign up for the mailing list




Previous:Harlan Ellison Afterword On “Author” vs “Writer”
Next:The Coup of the Red Drones