Read and write files with Bash

Bash, the Bourne Again Shell, provides powerful tools for manipulating files. Here's a detailed breakdown of reading and writing with examples:

Reading Files

There are several ways to read files in Bash, depending on your needs:

Using cat

Outputs the entire contents of a file to the terminal.

cat example.txt

Using head and tail

These commands display the first or last few lines of a file.

  1. head: Displays the first N lines of a file.
  2. head -n 5 example.txt # Shows the first 5 lines
  3. tail: Displays the last N lines of a file.
  4. tail -n 3 example.txt # Shows the last 3 lines

Using grep

Searches for a pattern in a file and outputs matching lines.

grep "error" example.txt # Finds lines containing "error"

Using read

Reads line by line into a variable, useful for looping through content.

while read line; do echo "Line: $line" done < example.txt

while IFS= read line; do...done: Similar to read, but allows setting the field separator for parsing lines.

while IFS=':' read name email; do echo "Name: $name, Email: $email" done < contacts.csv

Writing Files

Writing to files involves creating or appending content:

Using echo and & for redirection

You can use the echo command to write text to a file using the > operator.

echo "This is new content." > new_file.txt

Appending to a file with >>

If you want to append content to an existing file, you can use >> operator.

echo "More content!" >> new_file.txt

Using printf for formatted output

printf allows you to format the output before writing it to a file.

printf "Name: %s\nEmail: %s\n" "John Doe" "" > user_info.txt

Writing multiple lines with a Here Document

A Here Document is a way to embed multiple lines of text directly into a script.

cat > instructions.txt << EOF 1. Start the program. 2. Select your options. 3. Press Enter. EOF

EOF is just a placeholder, and you can use any word as long as it's consistent.

Command piping

Combine commands to process and write data.

cat data.txt sort > sorted_data.txt

Read the first 10 lines of a file and append them to another file in reverse order:

head -n 10 original.txt tac >> reversed_lines.txt

Extract email addresses from a log file and write them to a separate file:

grep -Eo "[^ ]+@[^ ]+" access_log.txt > emails.txt

Create a script that prompts the user for their name and age, then writes them to a user profile file:

read -p "Enter your name: " name read -p "Enter your age: " age echo "Name: $name" >> user_profile.txt echo "Age: $age" >> user_profile.txt

Using sed (stream editor)

Example 1: Replace Text in a File
# Syntax: sed 's/old_pattern/new_pattern/g' input_file > output_file sed 's/apples/oranges/g' fruits.txt > updated_fruits.txt

This command replaces all occurrences of "apples" with "oranges" in the fruits.txt file and writes the result to updated_fruits.txt.

Example 2: Delete Lines Matching a Pattern
# Syntax: sed '/pattern/d' input_file > output_file sed '/^$/d' input.txt > output.txt

This command deletes all lines containing only spaces (empty lines) from input.txt and writes the result to output.txt.

Using awk

Example 1: Print Specific Columns
# Syntax: awk '{print $1, $3}' input_file awk '{print $1, $3}' data.txt

This command prints the first and third columns of each line in the data.txt file.

Example 2: Filter Data Based on a Condition
# Syntax: awk '$2 > 50 {print $1, $2}' scores.txt awk '$2 > 50 {print $1, $2}' scores.txt

This command prints the first and second columns of lines in scores.txt where the value in the second column is greater than 50.

General Tips for Reading and writing files in bash

File Existence Check Before Writing

Always ensure a file exists before writing to prevent unintentional data loss. Use conditional statements or commands like [ -e file ] in scripts to validate file existence before proceeding with write operations.

Redirection Operators for Writing

Choose between > for overwriting and >> for appending when redirecting output. This prevents accidental data loss and allows controlled modification of existing files or creation of new ones.

Choosing Reading Methods

Select reading methods based on your needs—use cat for the entire file, head/tail for specific lines, or a while loop for line-by-line processing. Adapt the approach to match your desired output format.

Error Handling in File Operations

Prioritize error handling when dealing with files. Verify file access permissions, check for existence, and implement proper error messages in scripts. This ensures robust file management and prevents issues such as unauthorized access or missing files.


When reading and writing files, it's crucial to check for file existence before writing to prevent data loss. Choose appropriate redirection operators for writing, adapt reading methods based on output needs, and implement robust error handling for file access permissions and potential issues.