Memorizing Chinese characters

How does a Western brain master non-figurative(1) art like 电脑( computer ) or 谢谢 ( thank you ) ?

I find myself working in steps:
When first looking at a new character, I look for its structure – yes there is one.
Take 谢谢, it repeats the same character twice, and it consists of 3 smaller parts.
Then I look for elements I already know. Compare the first part of 朋友 ( friend ) and 说 ( talk ) with the characters above and you will find commonalities – apologies for the small print.

The writing of Chinese characters follows a predefined stroke-order – generally from left to right and top to bottom. It is true that, once on paper, you cannot tell whether the character was written in the correct sequence, but the repetitive nature will later help me memorizing it.
There are tools which animate the character-drawing. Check out yellowbridge or ZDT. For complex characters with many strokes ( like 谢谢 ), I look at the animation repeatedly until I get it right.

Only now comes the actual writing. I try to copy the character from my book, sometimes looking back at the animation. Pencil and paper are my weapons of choice in this battle.

Memorizing is the next and hardest part.
Multiple, short daily writing exercises work best for me. Way better than the same number of writings in one stretch.
Reading does not help here. Reading only takes the general impression of the character plus the context of sentence. That’s insufficient to practice character-writing.
A mistake I often make is mixing up elements from different characters or forgetting the character altogether.

At this moment, I have the character in my ‘short-term memory’.
I need to rehearse very regularly. As indicated in my Preparing for the second year-post, leaving it for 2 months is really not a good idea. Reading helps but writing is still better though; and gets more fun when one’s vocabulary goes beyond “你 好,我 很 忙” ( Hello, I’m very busy ).

A side-note: Writing Chinese characters on a computer is a mixed blessing.
The computer writes the characters for you, taking away both the burden and the skill.

(1) The figurative origin of Chinese characters notwithstanding.


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