A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a few searchable online dictionaries for looking characters up. This is all well and good when you know the pinyin for a character and so can type it in, or when the character is on a restaurant's website so you can copy and paste it, but it's less useful when you're looking at a paper menu and trying to puzzle out a character whose pinyin you have no idea of.
Fear not — there is a solution! But it does require an understanding of how Chinese characters are written.
Like letters in the Latin alphabet, Chinese characters are not drawn haphazardly, but written in a specific way — each time you write a character, you use the same strokes in the same order. The order isn't arbitrary, though; a small set of rules (with some exceptions and regional variations) determines the order in which the strokes should be written. Also, despite the complex appearance of many characters, there are only really eight basic strokes.
You don't need to learn to write characters in order to learn to read them. However, knowing the strokes and the stroke order rules is invaluable for looking things up via handwriting recognition programs! The one I use is the ChineseTools.com Mouse Input lookup. (Update, June 2012: the ChineseTools one isn't working for me any more, so I'm now using one by Mobilefish instead.)
I won't be posting my own guide to strokes and stroke order here, since there are already plenty of good ones on the interweb; two of these are at zhongwen.com and at CantoDict. Keeping these principles in mind, I find I get a pretty good hit rate when playing with the handwriting recognition tool above.
Furthermore... although as mentioned above you don't need to learn to write if your main aim is to learn to read, I have found that knowing how to write a character can help me remember it. If you also find this, then you can get free printable calligraphy paper for practising on at CantoDict and at Incompetech. To see some examples, there are a number of characters in animated GIF form on Tim Xie's website
, and there's also an online version of the eStroke software which lets you enter any Chinese character and view the stroke order (I'm having trouble viewing it properly in Firefox with addons and Flashblock, but it's fine in Safari and Opera).
Update, July 2010: I've now discovered the YellowBridge stroke order widget, which I find a lot easier to use than the eStroke one mentioned in the previous version of this post.
As an aside for those interested, Wikipedia has an article on the history of and regional variations in stroke order.