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Tips and tricks within ArcGIS

Release 9.3
Last modified May 27, 2009
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ArcGIS Desktop is a large application with many uses. This list of tips and tricks will help direct you to the correct reference information within the Help system to accomplish a variety of tasks.

Application framework

Toolbars and dockable windows

You can move toolbars and some dialog boxes to locations around your desktop or dock them within your application to organize a user interface that is most useable by you. If you hold down the Ctrl key while moving a toolbar or dockable window, you can move it to overlap the ArcMap interface without having it dock to the application. This is useful for large dialog boxes like the Snapping Environment dialog box, the topology Error Inspector dialog box, and the geoprocessing Command Line window.

Learn about basic user interface elements

The Customize dialog box

The Tools > Customize dialog box in the ArcGIS Desktop applications enables you to customize the user interface. While the Customize dialog box is displayed, you can drag and drop tools and commands between menus and toolbars and add new tools and commands to the user interface by dragging them from the Customize dialog box.
The Categories list on the Commands tab contains the commands available in that application, organized by menu name or type. When you look for a command in the list, you can type all or part of a command name into the Show commands containing box on the tab. This immediately filters the categories list so that only commands containing the string you entered are shown.
Learn about changing a toolbar's or menu's contents

Shortcut keys

Shortcut keys can be assigned to tools and commands that are on toolbars or in tool palettes. To set a shortcut key, open the Customize dialog box and click the Keyboard button at the bottom of the dialog box. On this form, you can see existing shortcut keys and set new ones.

Learn about the keyboard shortcuts in ArcMap, ArcGlobe, and ArcScene
Learn about assigning your own keyboard shortcut to a command
Lean about shortcut keys for editing in ArcMap
Learn about keyboard shortcuts for working with tables

You can download ArcGIS Desktop: A Selection of Time-Saving Tips and Shortcuts , a printable PDF of tips and shortcuts, from the ESRI Literature Web page.

A quick customization you can do to speed up your work

A quick customization you can do to work faster in ArcMap is to move common editing commands onto the Editing toolbar rather than having to click a menu to access them.

To move the Start Editing, Stop Editing, and Save Edits commands, add the Editor toolbar and open the Customize dialog box. Click the Editor menu and drag the three commands to the Editor toolbar. Right-click each command and click Show Image Only so each one is just shown with its icon. Close the Customize dialog box. Now you can start and stop editing and save edits with one click.

Moving the Editor menu commands to a toolbar

Editing and data compilation

Editing shortcuts

There are a number of shortcut keys that you can use when editing.
Learn about the shortcut keys for editing in ArcMap

Entering units other than map units

When editing in ArcMap, you can do an on-the-fly unit conversion if you specify the unit type. For example, 10m converts 10 meters to whatever the map units are for the target layer.

Learn about setting distance units


Modifying the angle and direction allows you to enter bearing and distance.

Learn about the sketch construction tools

Using snapping

Snapping allows you to make sure features properly connect together including avoiding gaps and overlaps. Press the spacebar to temporarily suspend snapping—which may be useful when you are tracing along features.

Learn about turning on snapping

Avoiding accidentally moving selected features

The sticky move tolerance allows you to set a minimum number of pixels your pointer must move on the screen before a selected feature is moved. This can be a useful way to prevent features from being accidentally moved small distances when they are clicked with the Edit tool.
Learn about moving features

Selecting the proper feature

When you have features selected from overlapping selectable layers, press the N key when the Edit tool is active to toggle through the selected features.

Learn about selecting features interactively

Geodata management

Dragging and dropping data

You can drag and drop data from ArcCatalog onto ArcMap or ModelBuilder or into geoprocessing tool dialog boxes and other applications. Click and hold the data (such as a raster dataset or feature class), then drag it over the ArcMap window and unclick it (dropping it). ArcMap does not have to be visible on your display to drag and drop data on the map—start to drag a selection in ArcCatalog, hold down the mouse, and hover over the ArcMap instance in the system tray (bottom of your screen) to focus ArcMap; while continuing to hold down the mouse button, either drop the selection on the map or manually position the exact location where you want the layer to be positioned in the table of contents.

Learn more about adding layers to a map

Types of data in ArcCatalog

ArcCatalog categorizes the information it displays based on the types of data (such as a file type/extension) that you have asked it to look for. Often, this takes time and can decrease performance when clicking on folders that contain lots of files. You can have ArcCatalog recognize only the files that you work with: click Tools from the Main menu and click Options. From the General tab, you can turn off the types of data you don't use to speed up navigation. This will also increase the performance of the Add Data dialog box that is used in ArcMap and other ArcGIS applications.

Learn about hiding folders and items

Renaming folder connections in ArcCatalog

You can rename your folder connections to give them shorter or more meaningful names. Like renaming a shortcut to a folder in Windows Explorer, renaming a folder connection in ArcCatalog doesn't affect the name of the folder it points to. You can still click on a renamed folder connection and look in the ArcCatalog status bar if you want to see its full path.

Before and after renaming folder connections in ArcCatalog

ArcSDE connection files

Connections to ArcSDE are stored as files in your user profile. You can copy and paste those connection files to any folder (like a project folder that contains maps), making it easier to organize your data and maps.
Learn about creating spatial database connections

Easy access to your frequently used coordinate systems

When working with external datasets (such as CAD files or shapefiles) you may need to apply a map projection. Instead of searching through the predefined list of projections each time, add the projections you use most often to your list of favorite projections. In the ArcCatalog tree, drag and drop your most frequently used coordinate systems into the top level of the Coordinate Systems folder. This makes them easier to access from all dialog boxes and wizards in which you choose a coordinate system:

Easier access to your favorite coordinate systems

Learn about defining a shapefile's coordinate system
Learn about defining a raster's coordinate system
Learn about defining a coverage's coordinate system
Learn about defining a coordinate system for CAD data


Automating your work with models and scripts

Using the geoprocessing framework, you can automate repetitive tasks like data conversion or analysis, using geoprocessing models. You can export a model as a script that can be easily scheduled or automated. Doing so will save you time and increase your productivity. Learn more about automating with scripts. Learn more about automating with models

Using the Results tab

The Results tab on the ArcToolbox window makes it easy to review and reuse the geoprocessing steps you've performed in your current and previous sessions. It's a record of everything you've done. You can see each operation you've performed, including all inputs, outputs, and messages. You can perform operations on results, like reopening the tool dialog box or dragging datasets from the result into a tool.
Learn more about the Results tab

Using batch mode

You can run any geoprocessing tool in batch mode, allowing you to execute a single tool multiple times with different inputs without your intervention. Right-click any tool in the ArcToolbox window and click Batch to open a dialog box that contains the batch table.
Learn more about batch processing

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about geoprocessing

Many times, as users, old or new, you run into the same issues. Where are custom toolboxes stored? How do I perform looping in ModelBuilder? How do I add a graphic to the dialog side panel of my custom tool? These questions and others like them are common problems faced everyday. The Frequently Asked Questions about geoprocessing will help you solve some of the more common issues.

Getting help

Context-sensitive help

You can get a context-sensitive help topic on any command in a pull-down menu or context menu (menu accessed by right-clicking). For example, if you right-click an item in ArcCatalog and want to know why a certain command is disabled, get context–sensitive help for that command to find out more information. Either hover the mouse over the toolbar button or highlight the command on a menu, then press SHIFT + F1; or click the What's This button What's This pointer on the Standard toolbar and click a button, menu option, or even content on a dialog box to view the help.

Learn about getting help within ArcGIS applications

Mapping and visualization

Setting the full extent of a map

When clicking the Full Extent button Full Extent, ArcMap will zoom to the extent of all the layers in the data frame—which may not always be desirable. If you have a study area that defines the full extent of your work area, you may want the Full Extent button to recognize the study area extents as the full extent of your data frame. To do this, click View from the Main menu, click Data Frame Properties, and click the Data Frame tab. At the bottom of this tab, you'll see the option to specify the extent to be used by Full Extent.
You can use the Full Extent button as a one-click bookmark to a useful extent for a particular task you are doing. For example, suppose you are doing some editing in one area of a city map. By setting the Full Extent to display the area you are currently editing, you can quickly return to that area after zooming in on detail, instead of the entire city.

Learn about setting a custom extent for the map's full extent

Navigating maps with keyboard and mouse shortcuts

You can use keyboard shortcuts and your mouse for quicker navigation with maps and layout pages. For example, you can pan, zoom, or recenter the map without having to go to a toolbar and click a different tool.
For a list of navigation shortcuts, see Quick ways to navigate maps and pages.

Specifying scale in relative formats

In ArcMap, you can enter scales in relative formats such as
1 in = 5 mi
1 in to 5 mi
5 miles to 1 in
One inch = 5 miles
One in equals 5 mi
1in equals 5mi

The scale control in the Standard toolbar and in all dialog boxes automatically converts relative format to absolute format (for example, 1:316,800). The control recognizes commonly used measurement unit names and abbreviations.
Learn more about setting the map scale

Using viewer windows in ArcMap

Work with your data at multiple scales by choosing the Window > Viewer command or using the Create Viewer Window tool on the Data Frame Tools toolbar. Viewer windows are fully functioning live ArcMap displays so all tools and navigation shortcuts work inside them.

Viewer windows can be useful for

Using a dual screen configuration? Try dragging a viewer window onto your second screen and maximizing it to more than double your graphic display area:

Using a viewer window with a dual monitor configuration

Learn more about viewer windows

Commands in table window for working with records

Open a table and right-click the grey cell to the left of any record to access commands for selecting records and interacting with the map from the table. These commands include

Table window's context menu

Keyboard and mouse shortcuts exist for many of these commands. Highlight a command in the menu and press Shift + F1 to get a context–sensitive help topic about that command including shortcut info.
Learn about keyboard shortcuts for working with tables

The graphic above also shows the ability to have long field names and text fields wrap around in the table. Specify this in the Options > Appearance dialog box with the Column Header Height and Cell Height settings.

Formatting numeric values

Numeric values in layer and table attributes can be reformatted on the fly to change the way they appear throughout ArcMap. To reformat a numeric value for a layer, open the Properties dialog box and click the Fields tab, click the ellipse button Ellipsis next to the Numeric Number Field you want changed, then alter the information in the Number Format dialog box to produce the numeric value you want displayed. Often, land and building values are stored in computer-aided mass appraisal (CAMA) systems as integer values, but ArcMap can convert them to currency values on the fly (for example, 100000 can be reformatted as $100,000.00). The underlying data is not changed, and the reformatted values will be displayed in MapTips, Identify results, labeling expressions, table windows, and so on.

Learn about Setting field properties, aliases, and table display options

On-the-fly raster resampling

In ArcMap, you can use bilinear interpolation or cubic convolution to smooth the appearance of raster images prior to displaying them in ArcMap. For example, you might have a 30–meter DEM that looks blocky (you see the individual pixels) if you zoom beyond the raster resolution. If you open the raster layer Properties dialog box and click the Display tab, you can change the resampling so that raster appears much smoother if you zoom beyond the real resolution of the data. This is useful when combining low–resolution elevation data (that is, USGS DEM) with scanned DRG (USGS 7.5 minute quads) or large–scale vector data.

Learn about performance tuning for displaying raster data

My Places dialog box

The My Places dialog box lets you create and work with a list of your most frequently used or favorite addresses, locations, features, and spatial extents. You can use this dialog box to navigate around to view these places. You can also annotate your map to show their locations and add the places into the route–finding dialog boxes as stops and barriers.

Your list of places is available regardless of which map or globe document you are working with. Places are stored in a separate file on your computer, not in the map document or globe document, as is the case with spatial bookmarks. So you work with the same list of places in any application that supports them.

Learn more about the My Places dialog box

Group layers

When you have a lot of layers in your map, you can group the layers to organize them in the table of contents. You can create grouped layers using a number of methods including selecting two or more layers, right-clicking with the mouse on one of the selected layers, and clicking Group from the menu. You may choose to group layers based on display order or theme, or to organize content for a project. If you save a group layer to a layer file, you can save your project layers independent of a map document.

Learn about managing group layersXa
relative paths to reference the data in your map. You can choose this option from the Document Properties dialog box.

Learn about referencing data in the map

Layer files

If you are collaborating on and sharing data with others in GIS projects, or if you have a set of base layers that you always add to a map as reference information, you can use layer files to store how the information in that layer is drawn on any map.

Learn about saving a layer to disk

Selection tab on the table of contents

The Selection tab displays a list of the layers in the active data frame only. Checking a layer on or off on this tab changes whether or not features in that layer can be selected. If you right–click a layer on this tab, the context menu will present a list of commands that will help you with selections.

Learn about using the table of contents

Label styles and label expressions

Defining the style and expression used to label a feature can be a time–consuming process, which is sometimes easily forgotten. Using a label style, you can save the style settings for a label (such as font, size, and placement). Likewise, you can save the expression used into an .lxp file and load that expression into other layers or maps.

Learn about styles
Learn about creating symbols
Learn about specifying the text of labels

Maplex abbreviation dictionaries

Abbreviation dictionaries allow the label engine to shorten long labels to fit within small spaces and place more labels. You can create an abbreviation dictionary and store it either as a file on disk or in a database.

If you have Maplex installed, learn about abbreviating words to place more labels


Keyboard and mouse shortcuts

There are a number of shortcut keys available when working with tables. In addition, you can right-click a gray cell to the left of a record to open a context menu of selection and navigation shortcuts, or right-click a field name to open a context menu of field management shortcuts.
Learn more about shortcuts with tables

Calculating area, length, perimeter, and other geometric measurements

You can easily calculate area, length, perimeter, centroid, and point coordinates without having to write code. Open the attribute table, right-click the heading for a text or numeric field, and click Calculate Geometry.
Learn more about Calculate Geometry

Direct read of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets

You can open Microsoft Excel tables directly in ArcGIS and work with them like other tabular data sources. For example, you can add them to ArcMap, preview them in ArcCatalog, and use them as inputs to geoprocessing tools. Excel files are added to ArcMap like other data, through the Add Data dialog box. When you browse to an Excel file, you will need to choose which table you want to open. Any name references to cells or ranges defined in Excel are preserved in ArcGIS.

Learn more about working with Microsoft Excel files in ArcGIS

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