At the beginning…
Learn the radicals – the components of the characters (refer to the “background” section), because then characters will start to make sense… You’ll see characters and even if you don’t know what they mean you’ll be able to recognise them and make some sense of them, and then when you do come to learning characters, many will already be familiar and easily remembered.
The method for learning radicals which I used is from a book which introduced 100 of the most common radicals. It introduced each radical, gives you it’s origin and meanings it’s usually associated with. It then shows you how to draw it and gives you several characters made from that radical for practice. I found this method to be extremely effective. This is when the world of written Chinese really opened up to me, virtually every character I saw had components I could identify.
Remembering how to write all the characters is for the most part a waste of time
One of the greatest challenges in learning Chinese is being able to remember how to write all the characters. The reality is this… these days many young Chinese people can’t even write many of the characters, because they use their computer to type (just like young people today being unable to spell because they use spell check). Thus it’s not necessary truly memorise how to write all the characters… but you should memorise how to write the radicals (there are only a couple of hundred, compared to 3000+ characters. Doing this practice-writing gets you accustomed to the structure of the characters (for recognition and memorization), and is crucial for being able to look up characters in a dictionary. Learning the radicals can also make it easy to create mnemonics for remembering characters. If you want to learn the characters successfully without wasting time, learning the radicals is essential. Of course after you learn the radicals you should practice writing some characters which put those radicals into use, but you don’t need to memorize how to write them.