One of the frustrations of working with Illustrator (and in reality, all Adobe applications) is that getting the right selection can be a tedious task. Especially for those coming from FreeHand, the approach to selecting parts of objects is very different. Having two selection tools (a Selection tool and a Direct Selection tool) certainly don't make this task any easier. In fact, when trying to select a specific anchor point on a path with no fill or stroke, we're being asked to click on an anchor point without even seeing it. Anyone up for a game of pin the tail on the donkey?
So it's with this in mind that I pass on to you some little bit of advice to hold on to. The problem is that while we have a way of communicating to Illustrator what our intentions are (by moving the mouse, clicking, typing commands, etc.), it would seem that Illustrator has no way to communicate back to us, to confrim our intentions. The classic example -- in baseball, a catcher flashes signs to call a pitch. The pitcher may shake his head back which means, no, not that pitch, give me a different one. When the pitcher gets the sign for a pitch he agrees with, he nods his head and there's that silent communication that gives the catcher the confidence that he knows what kind of pitch to expect. If the pitcher wouldn't acknowledge the signs, how would the catcher know if the pitcher accepted his request? Or if he decided to throw something else instead?
When using Illustrator and trying to select objects, we can often feel that we're a catcher behind the plate. We call for a slow curve but instead, we get a rising fastball, and we're totally unprepared for it.
Well, in reality, Illustrator is communicating with us, but we just may not be aware of it. No, I'm not referring to those times when you're working really late and you hear your computer talking to you (you should get that checked out by the way), but I'm referring to the subtle changes in the cursor that Illustrator uses to indicate its intentions. The classic Illustrator example here is the Pen tool. When drawing and editing paths, Illustrator will use a variety of cursors, each with a slightly different appearance, to help you understand what Illustrator is thinking.
For example, as you move your mouse over an anchor point to close an open path, Illustrator changes the Pen tool cursor to show a circle ("you complete me") -- this is Illustrator's way of saying "hey, I noticed you moved the cursor over that existing anchor point, and I assume you want to close the path, are we on the same wavelength here?".
Well, when it comes to selecting and moving objects, Illustrator similarly uses this method of communication to help us get in sync with Illustrator's behavior. To get a better idea of what I mean, I've broken up the selection tool cursors into three groups.
In Group A, we have the Direct Selection tool -- mainly used to select PARTS of an object (a single anchor point, etc.). When just mousing around, we see the regular white (or hollow) arrow (left). However, when you mouse over an object that Illustrator can select, a small black solid box appears near the cursor (center). That's Illustrator telling you "hey, click here and I'll select the ENTIRE object for you". Now, move your mouse over an anchor point and Illustrator gives you a hollow box near the cursor, indicating that you can click and select just a single anchor point. If you're trying to select an object that isn't selected (necessary if you want to select a single anchor point), and that object just happens to have a fill and stroke of none, watching the cursor will let you know exactly where to click (granted that you know the general vicinity of where to look -- press Control-A to select all first to see where it is -- then deselect and do your thing).
In Group B, we have the move icons. Once an object is selected, Illustrator shows this cursor (left) to indicate that dragging now will move the object. Press the Option (Alt) key and you'll get the double icon (right), indicating that dragging will move a copy of the object, and leave the original in place.
Finally, we look at Group C. Most experienced Illustrator users will tell you that they use this tool less frequently (if at all), but I show it here anyway. The left icon is the tool, the middle icon indicates the cursor is above an object that can be selected, and a the right icon indicates that your cursor is sitting right over an anchor point.
It's like SONAR, without the depth charges (now THAT would be fun...)