Learning to write by hand in Chinese has almost become a divisive topic among foreign learners.
I’d say more than 50% of Mandarin students I know don’t bother with writing at all.
I believe the main reason most foreign learners take a back seat when it comes to writing characters is because handwriting is the most time-intensive aspect of learning Chinese, yet provides the least practical reward.
This isn’t the angle everyone learner takes, of course.
There are lots of benefits to writing characters which we’ll talk about below.
However, most learners have their eyes firmly set on comprehension and communication, and writing isn’t essential to those goals.
Why Learn to Write Characters at all?
The following are some widely accepted benefits of writing Chinese characters:
- You’ll understand radicals and components much better – It always shocks me how many new learners skip over these very useful and important aspects of learning Chinese. For a more detailed guide on radicals and components, check this out.
- You’ll be able to read handwritten characters much better – This is something almost all learners struggle with. If you’ve learned to write characters by hand, however, you’ll have a huge advantage over those who’ve only learned to read characters by site.
- Your memory retension for characters and words will be much better – A former teacher told me that if you learn how to write a character by hand, you’ll never forget its meaning. She was right.
- It’s an interesting skill that looks cool – It just is, OK?
- It’s therapeutic – It isn’t for everyone, but there is a certain artistic element to writing characters. Some people really enjoy finding some quiet time and writing away to their heart’s content – kind of like knitting or painting or something.
So, you’ve decided you want to write Chinese characters. But how to improve your handwriting skills in double-quick time?
Tip 1: Write until your hand falls off
By far and away the most important way to improve your handwriting is practice.
Much to the annoyance of every learner that wants to save time (and deep down doesn’t want to do something), this is the unavoidable truth.
There are no shortcuts.
There’s no secret hack.
Write, write, and write some more.
Tip 2: Learn radicals and components
Way too many learners gloss over this foundational aspect of learning Chinese in an attempt to rush the process.
They figure that they don’t need to know about the building blocks of characters if they can memorise new words anyway.
What they frustratingly ignore is that learning to write the radicals and components makes it much easier to learn new characters and words thereafter!
There are around 50,000 Chinese characters in existence but only 214 radicals and components that create them.
Do yourself a favour, and learn to crawl before you can walk!
Tip 3: Get a good textbook to start off
Just grabbing a sheet of paper and randomly copying road signs probably isn’t the best thing for a complete beginner.
You’re going to need something or someone to show you the ropes in a sensible, logical order.
I recommend the following 3 textbooks to start off:
This book is a solid choice for beginners – a workbook for the 288 highest-frequency characters and 700 words in Chinese. Designed to have you reading and writing simple, connected Chinese sentences quickly.
This book could potentially lead you through a large part of your character writing journey as it covers all HSK levels from total beginner to advanced. More comprehensive than the last one, but less instructive for beginners.
If you’re intimidated by the gigantic atlas of Chinese that is my previous suggestion, this one might be more up your street. It will cover all of the bases of HSK 1 and give you plenty of space to practice.
Tip 4: Use an SRS writing app
When writing, however, you don’t have the option of using software like this to speed up your progress.
That is unless you use Skritter.
Skritter combines writing with SRS, and it is incredibly effective for learning written characters and stroke order. It might not be the same as writing with a pen and paper, but it comes pretty close.
Check out my full Skritter review here.
Tip 5: Mimic a target style
You’ve most likely already got a writing style in your native language that isn’t going to change much.
However, if you’re just getting started on your Mandarin learning journey, you have a blank canvas in front of you.
A target style is something many learners have used to great effect when learning to speak, but you can do this with writing, too.
After all, both are forms of expression.
You can mimic a particular writing style, and in time, develop one of your own.
Tip 6: Keep a writing diary/record
With language learning, sometimes it’s hard to gauge how much progress you’ve actually made over time.
Keeping a diary or record gives you the ability to compare your old writing and new writing side-by-side.
Doing this after lengthy intervals of months at a time can serve as really good reassurance that you’re hard work is paying off!
Tip 7: Commit to writing
If any Chinese learner tells me their writing skills haven’t improved, 99% of the time it’s due to a lack of practice.
I get it.
But anything truly worth it takes time, and writing Chinese most definitely takes a lot of time to get good at.
That’s why a lot of learners of Mandarin don’t bother. After all, learning to listen, read, and speak takes enough time as it is.
I strongly recommend, at the very least, learning how to write the radicals and components as well as the first few hundred most common characters. It will be incredibly helpful for learning new characters and words in the future.
This might take a few hundred hours, but it’ll be time well spent.
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