Be suspicious. Consider what you are being told, why, and whether it makes sense.
Critical thinking is a crucial editorial skill. It goes alongside but is more specific than the generic “being detail oriented” and often gets less attention. Editors must apply some measure of objective analysis to stay mindful of facts that may be incorrect, statements that should be flagged, or correlations that don’t make sense. It’s easier, of course, to just trust the author, and sometimes I may be reading along, comfortable under the security of an author’s authority, when I realize wait, no, I better check on or question this. Even the best of authors make mistakes, and sometimes they rely on memory when memory can fail us (work in memory studies has shown that the more often we remember something, the more likely it is that the memory becomes distorted–fascinating! but I might be remembering that wrong…).
For me, critical thinking, or merely questioning, began long before I tried to edit anyone’s work. I was raised by two religious parents, taken to church twice on Sundays, attended Christian elementary and secondary schools (as well as a year at a Christian college). For all that, I should be religious, too. But instead, even as a child, I questioned it. Certain things made sense–like compassion, forgiveness, inclusion–and other things did not–like judgment, punishment, and exclusion. But I only quietly rebelled by not acquiescing to ritualistic conformity and later transferred to secular universities and physically moved away from the enclave of religious freedom that I found so stifling. Critical thinking and questioning were further developed in readings in literature, philosophy, and the social sciences and, of course, from work and life experience as well.
A propensity to silently question helped lead me to a career in editing. When editing, I can quietly think and question and sometimes, as a result, make suggestions that hopefully improve the work. I also make my own mistakes, but let’s not discuss those now (or ever). It is never the role of an editor to try to show up an author with rules of grammar or historical facts or, please never, the editor’s own opinions. Sometimes an author can interpret queries or editorial suggestions in this way, and I try to be sensitive in how I make changes and ask questions to avoid that response. But it is the editor’s role (whether developmental or line or copy editor) to assist the author in the presentation of accurate and reliable work, and to do so, critical thinking/questioning is, well, critical. A scholar approaches a field of study critically to produce a work intended to further the discipline, and albeit on a smaller or different scale, the editor must apply critical thinking to that same end.
Although one clear definition of critical thinking is difficult to find (to further complicate the issue, as philosophy is apt to do, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/), variations of the definition as a process of thoughtful assessment to form a qualified judgment are applied in specific disciplines and to multiple ends. Developing critical thinking in students is a goal of education, and critical thinking skills are often a “soft skill” requested by employers. And depending on the context or website, one can find lists of further delineated critical thinking skills. Consider how five critical thinking skills found on one site directly apply to editorial work: analysis, communication, creativity, open-mindedness, and problem-solving. Others found include applying standards, discriminating, logical reasoning, and inference. When editors must discern what an author is saying or implying when the text is unclear, they utilize a number of these skills (e.g., analysis, inference, logical reasoning, problem-solving, etc.). Editors should feel comfortable adding “critical thinking” to their list of marketable skills.
In the larger world, thinking critically, applying analysis and logic to form a judgment, might also be our best–or only–defense against the constant blurring of the line between information, which is thoughtfully researched and promotes independent thinking, and propaganda, the intent of which is to think for us.