A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

waysofwritingI remember what it was like to write my first Chinese characters. It felt like writing runes with magical powers, they were exotic and beautiful, closer to art than language. I still like Chinese characters, so studying Chinese for years hasn’t destroyed that feeling completely. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find writing characters by hand very fun in and of itself. I prefer typing and reading.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting

If you love writing Chinese characters by hand, this article is not for you, but if you feel that you want to learn to write Chinese characters, but that you don’t want to spend more time than necessary, you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, I will discuss my minimum effort approach to handwritten Chinese. I have already talked a lot about how to learn characters elsewhere, so this is more about the bigger picture. If you want to read more about character learning in general, this article offers a good overview: My best advice on learning Chinese characters.

The goal: Legible, not beautiful

Before I go into any details about the strategy itself, there are a few words to be said about the goal. My goal is to be able to write most things by hand that I can already type on a computer. That means that vocabulary, grammar and so on isn’t part of what I’m talking about here. This is about the difference between being able to read, type and perhaps say something, and being able to write it down on a piece of paper by hand.

Why would you need to be able to do that? There are many reasons, but personally, I think that not being able to write the language you are learning is a serious deficit. How serious it is depends on why you’re learning. Your friends finding out that you can’t write is one thing, but it will be harder to convince native speakers that your Chinese is good if you struggle with filling in a simple form during a job interview. I have written more about the importance of handwriting here: Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

I also want to say a few words about what I don’t need:

  1. I don’t care about writing beautifully. That clearly doesn’t fit into a minimum effort approach.
  2. I don’t need to be able to write quickly. This is also a minimum effort consideration, I merely want to be able to write, even if it takes a little time.

The strategy: Four components

The four components in my strategy are reading, typing, spaced repetition software and communicative handwriting. I’ll discuss them one by one and explain how they help me reach the goal described above:

  • Reading ought to be the start of any endeavour to be able to write. Passive understanding of something is the foundation for active knowledge and without it, it’s hard to get a feel for how the language is used. Constantly looking at Chinese characters also teaches you what they look like and which characters belong together. You will not learn to write all characters by hand simply by looking at them, but reading is still the foundation of writing.

  • Typing keeps your vocabulary and grammar up to par. Typing basically includes everything that handwriting does, minus moving a pencil across paper by hand. This means that if you can type something, you generally only need character knowledge to be able to write it by hand as well. If you use phonetic input (such as Pinyin or Zhuyin), you also make sure that you know how to pronounce what you’re typing, which increases the chance that phonetic components will remind you of how to write the characters as well.

  • Spaced repetition software is crucial for any minimum effort approach because it’s by far the most efficient way of maintaining large amounts of knowledge. These programs will help you schedule each review, putting it off for as long as possible to save you time while not delaying it so long that you forget the information. It’s possible to build a large vocabulary this way with less effort than most other methods. I prefer Skritter because it gives me immediate feedback, but you can use any program.

  • Communicative writing refers to writing Chinese characters with real communication in mind. Most of the practice that takes place in classrooms is not communicative (such as translating sentences, doing exercises in the workbook or dictation). For writing to be communicative, communication needs to be the main purpose of writing. It can be with other people, such as leaving a note for a friend written in Chinese or chatting with someone online using the handwriting input on your phone, but it could also be with yourself, such as writing shopping lists, memos or blog posts in Chinese. The point with communicative writing is that it’s realistic and makes sure you constantly drill the high-frequency words you need to be able to write well. If you neglect this step, you will likely find that you forget even common characters when forced to write by hand, simply because you never write them and spaced repetition software isn’t very good at spotting weaknesses in knowledge you’re supposed to know really well.

By combining these four elements, its possible to reach the goal of being to write by hand most things I can already type on a computer. I haven’t found a way of removing any of these components, so this is why I call it a minimum-effort approach.

Conclusion

This strategy is the result of a lot of thinking about how to learn what I need without spending too much time. I have used a similar approach for a few years and it has served me well. I can write Chinese when required to and I seldom forget characters or words. I don’t spend much time focusing on only writing characters, it’s all integrated into other activities that are either communicative or meaningful in other ways.

Even if my typed Chinese is superior to my handwriting, that’s mostly because of differences between word processing and handwriting in general, such as speed, ease of editing and so on. This is at least partly applicable to any language, so I would find it harder to write this article by hand than typing it in a text editor. Thus, I still prefer typing Chinese, but I’m not really afraid of writing by hand. The only drawback is that when required to write something lengthy, the muscles in the hand aren’t really up to the task and get tired easy, but I can live with that.

What strategy do you use to learn to write by hand? Are you like me in that you want to learn it, but not more than necessary, or do you genuinely enjoy writing characters by hand?

7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?

Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

Handwritten Chinese characters can be magically beautiful and mysterious. I still remember what it felt like looking at Chinese and not understanding anything of what it said and feeling a strong attraction. Indeed, some students start learning Chinese because of the characters. After having studied Chinese for a while, I realised, just like all other students before me have, that handwriting in Chinese takes a very long time to learn. It’s not like learning another alphabet or anywhere nearly as simple as that. It takes many times longer than simply learning to read, which is not true to the same extent for other languages.

That might be okay if you love characters, but what if you don’t? Living as we do in an digital era with smart phones and computers, most students sooner or later ask themselves this question:

Is it really necessary to learn how to write by hand in Chinese or is reading/typing enough?

When using smart phones or computers, we can use phonetic input systems, which select the characters we want for us as long as we can remember how they are pronounced. Since we enter multiple characters, we seldom need to be able to distinguish between individual characters in detail; the computer makes the right choices for us. Do we really need to write Chinese by hand at all? If you don’t understand this question, ask yourself this:

When was the last time you wrote something in English by hand?

I’ll answer that question myself by listing something I normally write by hand:

  • Shopping lists
  • Small messages
  • Brainstorming

Being able to do these things in Chinese is not enough to motivate that you spend hundreds of hours learning how to write all the characters you know how to read. This doesn’t mean you should skip handwriting altogether, though. Let’s look at this a bit closer.

Handwriting as a beginner

Whatever you think about the need to able to write complicated texts in Chinese, I think most people agree that you should learn to write characters when you start learning Chinese. Not necessarily straight away, but if you hope to become literate in Chinese, you definitely need to know the basics of handwriting. Without it, it will be very hard to decipher characters and know how the components work and how they fit together. You don’t need to be a calligraphy master, but you do need basic handwriting skills to do this.

This number of characters you should learn to write by hand is slightly arbitrary, but I think learning the most common 1000 characters or so is a good idea for all students. Learn characters outside the 1000 most common on a need-to-know basis (such as your country, your name, your address and so on). If you find that you don’t particularly like writing much by hand, then don’t, but learning 1000 guarantees that you can manage basic communication in written Chinese, which might be essential at times. Sure, you won’t be able to pass an academic exam with 1000 characters, but that’s not what you’re aiming for. In other words, learn handwriting to enhance your understanding of Chinese characters, not because you need the handwriting in itself.

Intermediate and above

If you need handwriting depends entirely on what you plan to do in the future. Here are a few examples:

  • Communicating with Chinese friends and relatives – This almost certainly requires no handwriting ability at all. You might be required to understand other people’s handwriting, which might cause problems. This is a bit off topic, but an advantage of learning to write by hand yourself is that it becomes much easier to read other people’s handwriting (you learn the stroke order, which is essential if you want to make sense of cursive writing). still, learning to write additional 3000 characters is a very bad investment compared to spending that time on other things.
  • Studying something other than Chinese in China – If you want to pursue higher education in China, you will probably need to be able to write by hand as well, because your tests might be in Chinese. I know that some institutions allow foreign students to write in English, but I wouldn’t bet on it. If your education is in any way related to the Chinese language, you will definitely have to be able to write by hand.
  • Teaching Chinese – This is the obvious case where you really need to learn how to write by hand. I don’t think teachers necessarily need to write beautiful characters, but we need to be able to write correctly and clearly so that students can see what we’re doing, even if they themselves aren’t focusing on handwriting.
  • Working in China –Let’s say you want to work in China, but with something other than Chinese (engineering, computers, whatever). Being able to write Chinese by hand is probably good, but it’s not likely to be crucial. Being able to speak, listen, read and type will be much more important.

Again, note how your long-term goals dictate how and what you study. There is no simple answer to the question posed in the opening of this article.

Writing as an active way of processing characters

One advantaged with handwriting over mere recognition is that you have to be more active when you write. Thus, it’s easier to focus on character components and their relationships to each other. If you merely read, it’s easy to view the whole character as a unit, which is very efficient in the short term, but dangerous in the long run when you start encountering similar characters (you will confuse them).

However, this isn’t really an argument for more handwriting, but rather a call for students to be more active when reviewing vocabulary (especially individual characters). Don’t just look at the characters and say “I know this” and click “next”, instead, process the different parts, put them together to form a meaningful whole. This is easier when writing, but it can be done without using pencil and paper. I will develop this in a future article.

Be flexible, be smart

It takes a long time to learn thousands of characters, but it’s not an impossible task that takes years, especially if you already know how to read the characters. I think it’s perfectly possible to keep handwriting to the most common characters and then wait and see what happens. If you decide to become a teacher or want to do anything else where handwriting is needed, it will take some effort to learn how to write, but it’s not impossible. I think this is the best way because it minimises the time wasted on something you’re not going to use in case you don’t need handwriting.

My personal story

I learnt how to write all the characters in a textbook series by hand (approximately 2000 characters), which was enough for quite some time (roughly four years). During this time, I increased the number of characters I could read and understand to well above 5000. A few months ago, I decided it was time to start learning to write more by hand (upcoming exams, the need to take lecture notes better and so on). I’m currently going through my entire Anki deck in order to learn how to write most words and characters by hand. This will take a very long time indeed, but how to actually learn to write by hand will be the focus of an upcoming article; stay tuned!