In the first part of our CSV tutorial series we learned all about the CSV data format and its many dialects. The second part taught us about character sets and encoding forms in general, then we learned how to read CSV data using the Python csv module facilities. Now it’s time to see which features the csv module provides for writing CSV data. Relying on our skills on reading and writing CSV data, we will tackle a slightly more complex example about handling data from an SQLite cursor. The sqlite3 module will come back in part four, where we will deal with adapters and converters. Finally, we will look under the hood of the csv module, and we will discuss the dialect detection and header detection’s algorithms.

Writing CSV Data

To write to a CSV file using Python, you must first import the csv module, by adding a line like this at the top of your Python code:

import csv

When a library writes CSV data, it should perform the following operations:

  1. Adapting: (optionally) It can convert each field in a record into a string of characters; e.g. one field may be an int object, which is converted to a str object.
  2. Preparing a record: Then it must build a CSV record from a list of fields by adding the field delimiters and the line delimiter.
  3. Encoding: It must turn a sequence of characters from some charset into a sequence of bytes. Some character sets, like Unicode, provide more than one encoding method.
  4. Fetching: Finally, it fetches the encoded data, usually on a per-record basis.

In this section we’ll see how the Python csv library writes CSV data.

The writer() Factory Function

The csv library provides the following function:

csv.writer(destination, dialect='excel', **fmtparams)


  • destination is a file-like object providing at least a write() method. If it is a file, then it should be opened with newline='' so that no translation takes place when writing a \n character.
  • dialect is an optional parameter that can be either the name of a registered dialect, or a dialect class.
  • fmtparams is an optional sequence of keyword parameters in the form param=value, where param is one of the formatting parameters and value is its value. If both the dialect and some formatting parameters are passed, the formatting parameters overwrite the respective attributes of the dialect.

The csv writer function returns (1) an object with a writerow(record) method, which writes a single row to the destination, and (2) a method writerows(iterable), which writes an iterable of records to the destination. Let’s see some examples.

def replace_field_delimiter():
        """ Replace the ',' field delimiter with '\\t'. """
        with open('sample.csv',
                  newline='') as src, open(
                      'sample-tab.csv', 'wt',
                      encoding='utf-8', newline='') as dst:
            writer = csv.writer(dst, delimiter='\t')

            for record in csv.reader(src, dialect='excel'):

The replace_field_delimiter() function reads from sample.csv, which uses , as a delimiter, then it writes its contents to sample-tab.csv, replacing , with the \t tab-delimiter notation. First a writer object is created, then this object is used to place a record in the destination for each record fetched from the source.

Note: All supporting files for this tutorial can be downloaded from this ZIP file.

class WritableList(list):
        """ List with a `write()` method. """

        def write(self, record):
            """ Write a record to the list. """

    def writing_to_list():
        """ Writing CSV data to a list. """
        records = WritableList()
        writer = csv.writer(records, lineterminator='\n')

        with open('sample.csv', encoding='utf-8', newline='') as src:
            for record in csv.reader(src):

        for r in records:

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The WritableList class has been derived from the built-in list type, adding a write() method. That’s enough for the object returned by the csv.writer() function to use it as a destination for its writing operations. In other words, instead of writing to a file, we write to an object in memory. Here is the sample output of our writing_to_list() routine when reading our sample.csv file.:

Beyond The Black,Jennifer Haben,1995-07-16,DEU,Lost in Forever,2016
Arven,Carina Hanselmann,1986-04-16,DEU,Music of Light,2011
Sleeping Romance,Federica Lanna,1986-04-26,ITA,Alba,2017
Ex Libris,Dianne van Giersbergen,1985-06-03,NLD,Medea,2014

The DictWriter() Class

An alternative to the csv.writer() function for writing CSV data is the csv.DictReader class, which accepts dictionaries as records and maps them into output rows. This class has the writerow() and writerows() methods, just like the object returned by the csv.writer() function. Its __init__() method has the following parameters:

  • destination: a file-like object, which provides at least a write() method.
  • fieldnames: the list of field names of the CSV data. All the records written using the writerow() method will sort all fields using this list of names, and all records will have exactly the same number of fields as this list.
  • restval: (optional) value to be written if a field is missing; it defaults to an empty string.
  • extrasaction (optional) if set to 'raise', a writing operation will raise a ValueError if there are more values in the record dictionary than fields in the list of names; if set to 'ignore', extra values are simply ignored. It defaults to 'raise'.
  • all other parameters are passed to the underlying writer object, which we described in the Writer section.

The DictWriter and DictReader classes go hand-in-hand, as we can see from the following example:

def writing_dictreader():
        """ Reading with `DictReader` and writing with `DictWriter`. """
        with open('sample.csv', 'rt',
                  newline='') as src, open(
                      'sample-ac.csv', 'wt',
                      encoding='utf-8', newline='') as dst:
            # Select just the `Artist` and `Country` fields
            writer = csv.DictWriter(dst, [ "Artist", "Country" ],

            # Write the selected fields to the destination                 
            for artist in csv.DictReader(src, dialect='excel'):

The writing_dictwriter() function creates a writer object, which will select just the Artist and Country fields from our data source. Pay attention to the extrasaction parameter; if we don’t set it to 'ignore', the writerow() method will raise an exception because we selected just two fields, while the artist dictionary is a record of 6 fields. Now, when we iterate over the records of the source with the DictReader object as we have seen above, we’re able to write just 2 fields to the sample-ac.csv file. Here is an excerpt of our CSV output results:

Simone Simons,NLD
"Päivi ""Capri"" Virkkunen",FIN
Jennifer Haben,DEU
Carina Hanselmann,DEU
Federica Lanna,ITA
Dianne van Giersbergen,NLD
Clementine Delauney,FRA

Writing Data from an SQLite Database to a CSV File

Let’s assume you have a SQL database you’ve connected to using a SQLite connection. Now that you know to write CSV data using Python, we’ll show you how to read data from a database and save the results to a CSV file. To connect to your database, you’ll need to import the sqlite3 module, and to write to your CSV file, you’ll need to import the csv module.

In this example, we have a database with all the artists from our sample.csv file, which we’ll call sample.db3. We want to read this database and list all the albums released after 2014. Most importantly, we want to save the SQL query output to a CSV file, named albums.csv.

import sqlite3
    import csv

    def write_to_csv_file():
        """ Write all album released after 2014 to a CSV file. """
        with sqlite3.connect('sample.db3') as connection, open(
            'albums.csv', 'w', encoding='utf-8', newline='') as dump:
            cursor = connection.cursor()
            writer = csv.writer(dump)

            query = "SELECT band, album, year FROM symphonic WHERE year>2014;"
            for record in cursor.execute(query).fetchall():

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This Python code should be easy to follow. The only thing worth mentioning is the SELECT statement. band, album, year is the list of fields to select. symphonic is the name of the table to be queried. year>2014 is a relational expression which will choose only those records whose year field is greater than 2014. The output of the albums.csv file will be:

Amberian Dawn,Innuendo,2015
Beyond The Black,Lost in Forever,2016
Sleeping Romance,Alba,2017
Visions Of Atlantis,The Deep & The Dark,2018
Nightwish,Endless Forms Most Beautiful,2015
Dark Sarah,Behind the Black Veil,2015
Midnattsol,The Aftermath,2018
Elyose,Ipso Facto,2015

Looking Under the Hood of the CPython csv Module

As of Python 3.8, the csv module is implemented by an underlying C module, called _csv, and a higher level Python module. The Python module defines the DictWriter, DictReader and Sniffer classes, while the C module defines the rest of the interface. Let’s take a look at some behavior of the csv module. This behavior may depend on the official interpreter, which we’ll refer to as CPython in this tutorial.

An Introduction to Flow Charts

Flow charts are a way of representing algorithms in a language-independent fashion. We will use them to describe the two algorithms above. Our flow charts do not fully comply to the UML specification (see the Activities chapter), but they are easy to follow if you keep in mind that:

  • The solid circle marks the start of the algorithm (start node).
  • The solid circle within a hollow circle marks the end of the algorithm (final node).
  • Lines connect the various parts (nodes) of the algorithm.
  • Arrows indicate which way a line should be traversed. There can be only one arrow for each line.
  • Rectangles contain one or more statements to be executed in sequence.
  • Rounded rectangles contain a test condition. The next step of the algorithm will be chosen according to the result of the test. There is a line exiting from this element for each possible result of the test.
  • Diamond-shaped symbols indicate that two or more lines are merged into one line.
  • The flow chart must be read from the start node to the final node, following the lines in the direction pointed by their arrows.

The Dialect Detection's Algorithm

As we have already seen in part one of this tutorial, the aim of the dialect detection’s algorithm is to build a csv.Dialect class describing the CSV dialect of a file by reading just a sample from it. Now we will describe the algorithm thoroughly. Let’s have a look at its flow chart:

Flow Chart for the Dialect Detection's Algorithm

So, what’s going on here?

  • A new class, derived from csv.Dialect, is defined. The lineterminator and quoting attributes are set regardless of the rest of the algorithm. The algorithm will set the doublequote, delimiter, quotechar and skipinitialspace attributes of the dialect.
  • The _guess_quote_and_delimiter() function is called. This algorithm uses the regular expression support, provided by the re module, to analyze each row of the sample. It tries to break down a row using the " or the ' quote character, then looks to the first non-space character at the right of the field, which should be the field delimiter. For each row in the sample, it keeps track of the character used as the quote character and that used as a delimiter by incrementing counters. Using these counters, the algorithm will choose the quotechar and the delimiter attributes. From our description of the algorithm we can see that this approach won’t work if the fields in the sample aren’t quote delimited; e.g. our sample.csv file and many spreadsheets dealing with numerical data.
  • If the _guess_quote_and_delimiter() fails to detect the delimiter, the _guess_delimiter() function is called. This function takes a completely different approach, based on frequency tables. Instead of trying to break a line using a delimiter, it builds a frequency table for each character of the line. Then it builds a table of frequency based on the line table of frequency (named meta-frequency); e.g. the character c occurred n times in m rows. Using this table, the algorithm can determine the expected frequency of the delimiter character. Finally, it tries to find the character in the table that best meets this frequency, and sets it as the delimiter.
  • Finally, the dialect class is returned.

Those are the fundamentals of how the Python tries to detect the dialect of a CSV file.

The Headers Detection's Algorithm

As we have already seen in part one of this tutorial, the aim of the header detection’s algorithm is to determine whether a CSV file has a header or not by reading a short data sample. This algorithm uses the csv.reader() function to iterate over the records of the sample, and the Sniffer.sniff() method to determine the dialect of the sample. The sample need not be the entire file. The algorithm may raise an exception if the sample is not an iterable object (csv.Error), or if it is empty (StopIteration). The algorithm goes as follows:

  1. It assumes that the first record is the header, .
  2. Then it iterates over the remaining records, up to 20 records. All records that have a different number of fields than the header are discarded.
  3. It determines the data type of each field in the record, choosing between int, float, complex, and an integer representing the length of the field, which is the fallback value for all fields. If two values of the same column have a different type, then the whole column is discarded.
  4. The last phase of the algorithm (called voting) iterates over the column types: if a column has the same type as the respective value of the header, then a counter is decremented, otherwise is incremented.
  5. The first row of a CSV file is a header if the counter is greater than 0.

The rationale behind this algorithm can be summed up as follows:

  • If all cells of a column have the same type, and this type is different from the type of the respective cell in the first row, then the first row is likely a header.
  • If all cells of a column have a string type and if all strings are the same length except for the one on the first row, then the first row is likely a header. Many database systems and spreadsheets allows the user to declare fixed length strings, e.g. the CHAR(n) type of the SQL language, where n is the length of the string.

Now take a look at the flow chart of the header detection algorithm. The nodes with a light blue background represent the type detection part of the algorithm; the nodes with a light yellow background represent the voting phase of the algorithm.

Flow Chart for the Header Detection's Algorithm

The flow chart should be pretty much self-explanatory, but it is worth noting that:

  • eof(reader) isn’t a proper Python function; it just serves as a sentinel for the loop iterating over the rows of the sample.
  • detect_type() hides the implementation details of the type detection algorithm. The only thing we need to know is that it will return int, float, complex or an integer.
  • matches() compares the type of all cells of a column to the type of the first cell of the same column. We just need to know that it returns a bool value.

A Fistful of Exceptions

In part two of this tutorial we listed some exceptions raised by the csv module, mostly documented by the official reference. In this section we list all exception raised either by the underlying _csv.c module or by the module. This list has been built from the Python 3.8 source code, so it might not hold for all implementations and versions of the csv module.

Source Type Raised By Error Message Cause
py csv.Error Dialect.__init__() Various Exceptions while initializing a Dialect class. See the exceptions raised by the dialect_new() function.
py ValueError DictWriter.__init__() extrasaction must be 'raise' or 'ignore' Invalid value for the extrasaction parameter.
py ValueError DictWriter.writerow() dict contains fields not in fieldnames If extrasaction=='raise' and the record to be written has at least one field which isn't in the fieldnames parameter of the csv.writer() function.
py csv.Error Sniffer.sniff() Could not determine the delimiter. Each time the dialect detection's algorithm fails.
py StopIteration Sniffer.has_header() No message Passing an empty sample to the Sniffer.has_header() method.
c csv.Error get_dialect_from_registry() unknown dialect Trying to get a dialect which hasn't been registered yet.
c csv.Error dialect_check_quoting() bad quoting value The quoting parameter of the Dialect class have an invalid value.
c csv.Error dialect_new() quotechar must be set if quoting enabled. When quoting==QUOTE_NONE and quotechar==0.
c csv.Error dialect_new() lineterminator must be set The Dialect class is missing the line terminator.
c csv.Error dialect_new() delimiter must be a 1-character string Dialect.delimiter must be set to a single character.
c csv.Error dialect_new() escapechar must be a 1-character string Dialect.escapechar must be set to a single charater.
c csv.Error dialect_new() lineterminator must be a string. Dialect.lineterminator must be a string.
c csv.Error dialect_new() quotechar must be a 1-character string. Dialect.quotechar must be a single character.
c csv.Error dialect_new() quoting must be an integer. Dialect.quoting must be an integer constant.
c csv.Error parser_add_char() field larger than the field limit When passing a field that exceeds the field limit (maximum length).
c csv.Error parse_process_char() delimiter expected after quotechar When a record ends before the matching quote character is encountered.
c csv.Error parse_process_char() new-line character seen in unquoted field - do you need to open the file in universal-newline mode? When opening a file without using the newline='' option.
c csv.Error Reader_iternext() unexpected end of data If in 'strict' mode, while scanning a quoted field and a line delimiter is encountered before the matching quote character.
c csv.Error Reader_iternext() iterator should return strings (did you open the file in text mode)? When there is at least one character in a sequence which is not a valid Unicode character.
c csv.Error Reader_iternext() line contains NULL byte When a field contains the U+0000 (NUL) character.
c csv.Error csv_reader() argument 1 must be an iterator When passing a non-iterable object as first parameter to the csv.reader() function.
c csv.Error csv_writer() need to escape, but no escapechar set. When a field needs to be escaped, but the escapechar attribute of the dialect hasn't been set.
c csv.Error csv_writer() argument 1 must have a 'write()' method The first parameter of the csv.writer() function must be a file-like object.
c csv.Error csv_writerow() iterable expected. When passing anything other than an iterable object as the first parameter to the csv.writerow() function.
c csv.Error csv_writerow() single empty field record must be quoted. When len(fieldnames) > 0, quoting==QUOTE_NONE, and a record has no field.
c csv.Error csv_writerows() writerows() argument must be iterable. When passing anything other than an iterable to the csv.writerows() function.
c csv.Error csv_register_dialect() dialect name must be a string. Calling csv.register_dialect(n, ...), where n is not a string.
c csv.Error csv_unregister_dialect() unknown dialect When the name of the dictionary passed to the csv.unregister_dialect() hasn't been registered yet.
c csv.Error csv_field_size_limit() limit must be an integer When trying to set the maximum size of a field using an object other than int.

Closing Thoughts

In this part of our CSV tutorial series we learned how to write data to a CSV file using a certain dialect, but we didn’t stop there. We demonstrated how to read data from a database connection using the Python sqlite3 module and dump the data in a CSV format. Finally, we described the dialect detection and header detection algorithms.

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Stay tuned for the fourth (and final) part of our CSV tutorial series, where we’ll discuss adapting and converting CSV data.

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This section features some normative references for the CSV reading API and for the sqlite3 module.