A friend asked me for a brief description of the general guidelines for writing Chinese characters. What's the simplest way to describe those "rules" that apply across most characters?
The best place to start is with the Wikipedia entry on stroke order. It lists these guidelines, along with more detail and some nice animated examples:
In my experience, you don't need to panic about the details of each character, and there is sometimes disagreement about the "correct" order. If you learn the general guidelines, you won't usually make embarrassing mistakes. If you do want to see the details of a specific character, there are lots of on-line resources. Here are the two I most often use:
Although those are the two I use most often, the stroke order reference I find most beautiful and readable is the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project, specifically, the Black and White images. Here's an example:
They're much easier for me to use than an animation, because they are static images. I can scan back and forth with my eye, instead of waiting for the animation to cycle through. I used them as the inspiration for my Mnemosyne flash card files. Mine aren't quite as pretty, because they are automatically generated, but they have the added feature of a grid to guide your stroke placement.