Technical writing vs. knowledge translation

Story time

When I began working for the company that I currently work at, my job title was Data Entry Clerk. I was responsible for, obviously, entering data.

But as my responsibilities with the company grew, my title changed to Project Coordinator. This was mostly due to my involvement in an RFB that resulted in a substantial contract for the company.

I stayed in the coordination position for a couple of years before, again, my job title changed. This time to Technical Writer (which is my current title). The change was to reflect, again, a change in responsibilities.

I don’t have any formal education (or even previous experience) in technical writing, but most of the work I have done for the company could certainly be considered that. Thus, the title of Technical Writer makes sense.

However, it felt odd not having any education to back it up. So… I enrolled in an online 8-week technical writing program through a local university and began last week.

Like the start of every new class, we (the students) were asked to introduce ourselves. In my introduction, I wrote that I work as a technical writer full-time, but also as a knowledge translator part-time. I added that I felt these two jobs were almost identical and posted it.

I assumed that, like myself, no one would actually read any of the other student introductions but, to my surprise, someone read and replied to mine the next day. It was a request that I explain what knowledge translation was and how it differed from technical writing.

I kept my reply short, but the question intrigued me enough to want to explore it a bit more.

Two men sitting behind laptops and technical drawings

What is technical writing?

I define technical writing as

The collection and presentation of technical information in a format that is easily understood and used by the intended users.

Similarly, the Society for Technical Communication defines it as

The delivery of clear, consistent, and factual information—often stemming from complex concepts—for safe and efficient use and effective comprehension by users.

Note: Technical writing and technical communication are essentially the same thing. Technical communication is more of a recent term.

A brief history of technical writing

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the first technical manual around 1391 (see a snippet from his manual at the end of this article). However, technical writing as a profession did not begin until 1978, when President Carter required that all US federal regulations be easy to understand.

Today, and from what I have experienced, technical writing is a popular (and growing) profession. It pays well, there is a high demand, and it can be very rewarding — especially for those who enjoy writing and learning about anything technical.

A team of people looking at diagrams and drawings

What is knowledge translation?

I define knowledge translation as

The collection, presentation, and exchange of scholarly information in a format that is easily understood and used by the intended practitioners.

And the Canadian Institutes of Health Research define it as

A dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesis, dissemination, exchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge.

A brief history of knowledge translation

The concept of knowledge translation emerged sometime in the 1990s, when health researchers began pushing their findings to health practitioners. However, the first use of the term wasn’t until 2000, by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (see Straus et al., 2009).

Before it existed, health researchers would publish findings that hardly ever made their way into the hands of the people who needed them (such as doctors). Knowledge translation is intended to bridge the gap between the knowledge producers and the knowledge users.

Like technical writing, the field of knowledge translation is growing. Multiple knowledge translation organizations have cropped up in the past decade that specialize in collecting, presenting, and exchanging scholarly information.

What are the similarities?

Similarities between technical writing and knowledge translation include:

  1. The goal is to take complex information and present it in a clear and concise way.
  2. The knowledge product (e.g., a report or infographic) must be appropriate for the users.
  3. Required skills include project planning, researching, writing, and presenting.

What are the differences?

Differences between technical writing and knowledge translation include:

  1. Technical writing is for users of technical information, whereas knowledge translation is for users of scholarly information (often health-related).
  2. Knowledge translation also involves the exchange of information, which technical writing typically does not.

Knowledge exchange

Once a technical writer produces a report and provides it to the users, their task is complete; whether the users make use of the report is not typically the concern of the technical writer. The same cannot be said of knowledge translators.

Knowledge translators must ensure that the knowledge product they produce can be effectively used and applied by the users. In fact, knowledge translators will act as intermediaries between knowledge producers and knowledge users, ensuring an ongoing and effective exchange.

The exchange component of knowledge translation is so important that some people refer to the field as Knowledge Translation and Exchange (KTE); though Knowledge Translation (KT) seems to be a bit more common.

A virtual meeting between two people

Conclusion

Technical writing and knowledge translation share many similarities. In fact, one could argue that technical writing is merely a branch of knowledge translation with a specialization in technology. However, the field of knowledge translation is typically associated with health research.

Whether you call it technical writing, knowledge translation, or something else entirely, the goal is largely the same: the clear and concise presentation of complex information. In my opinion, these fields are essential because, after all, what good is information if it cannot be used.


A snippet from “A Treatise on the Astrolabe”

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “A Treatise on the Astrolabe” is considered the first ever technical manual, written around 1391. Below is a snippet from that document.

Here begynneth the descripcioun of thin Astralabie.

1. Thyn Astrolabie hath a ring to putten on the thombe of thi right hond in taking the height of thinges. And tak kep, for from henes forthward I wol clepen the heighte of any thing that is taken by the rewle "the altitude," withoute moo wordes.

2. This ryng renneth in a maner toret fast to the moder of thyn Astrelabie in so rowm a space that it distourbith not the instrument to hangen after his right centre.

3. The moder of thin Astrelabye is thikkest plate, perced with a large hool, that resceiveth in hir wombe the thynne plates compowned for diverse clymates, and thy reet shapen in manere of a nett or of a webbe of a loppe.