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A friend asked me for a brief description of the general guidelines for writing Chinese characters. What are the simplest ways to describe those "rules" that apply across most characters?

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my experience is that there are no guidelines. if you are absolutely meticulous, as i was, you will find that the variation is enormous. within any given country, the rules may be fairly uniform, but when you branch out or learn traditional (or, vice versa, simplified) characters, you'll have to 'un learn' stuff. and to top it all off, when you learn grass script or even kaiti callligraphy, you'll have to change the order. so don't think about guidelines. forget about them. there are many inconsistencies i could point out, if i had the desire. –  magnetar Dec 25 '11 at 18:03
    
If you mean there are no reliable rules, @magnetar, then I agree. However, guidelines are not as strict as rules. If you don't really care about the "correct" stroke order, but you just want to avoid obvious errors, then there are some helpful guidelines. See my answer below for more details. –  Don Kirkby Dec 26 '11 at 6:50

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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:

  1. Write from top to bottom, and left to right.
  2. Horizontal before vertical
  3. Diagonals right-to-left before diagonals left-to-right
  4. Center before outside in vertically symmetrical characters
  5. Enclosures before contents
  6. Left vertical before enclosing
  7. Bottom enclosures last
  8. Dots and minor strokes last

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:

  • MDBG.net - Type the pinyin and press enter, then click on the character you want. Finally, hover over the >> arrow and click on the brush to see a stroke order animation.
  • zhongwen.com - Use the search page to find the character you want, then scroll to the bottom and click on the "Animated" link to see a different stroke order animation.

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:

enter image description here

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.

I just discovered the Stroke Fanning reference. It's very compact (500 characters on a two-page PDF), but I still find the Wikimedia Commons format much more intuitive to read.

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