I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years that “Editor” isn’t just my job, it’s my orientation. In my head, I’m constantly editing everything — utterances, advertisements, environments, text messages, events. I compulsively pick apart meals I’ve made and outfits I see in magazines, landscapes I pass and artwork I confront, always questioning how they could be better.
On a bad day, you might call me “a critic,” or worse, simply “critical,” but I think there are some essential differences between being critical and being editorial:
A critic wants to tell you whether something you’ve done is good or not. An editor wants to tell you that, too, but then she wants to help you fix it. (That is, if you want her help. A polite editor keeps her editorial impulses to herself, unless she’s invited or she owns the place.)
A critic has a nearly universal standard against which an effort is judged. An editor knows that context is everything. That’s not to say she doesn’t have standards, she just recognizes that purpose, placement, and potential all matter in deciding what is good or not.
A critic sees an effort as inherently static and complete, so a judgment of its worth stands forever. An editor has a sense that everything could always be better but also that every work is a work in progress. That said, an editor understands that deadlines rule; everything can get better until we run out of time.
Editors and critics do share some key characteristics, such as analytical tendencies and a willingness to express dissatisfaction with The Way Things Are. That latter trait can be less than endearing, I’ll admit, but I think it deserves celebration. The person who is willing to ask out loud, “How can this be better?” and “How do we get there?” is a person who can raise our sights and prod us toward excellence.
When an editor asks those kinds of questions — lovingly and thoughtfully, of course, and with an eye on the highest good — dissatisfaction becomes a productive force that can benefit us all.