A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, uses his real name in his writing for a weekly newspaper, but is considering using a pen name for other work. He wrote:
I have had heavy criticisms attached to my birth name, before my professional career [as a journalist] even started, and believe with a pen name I can have a fresh start. My question for you is this: When should a writer use a pen name? Should a writer use a pen name at all?
What is a pen name?
A “pen name” or “nom de plume” is a pseudonym used by an author. Sometimes it’s used to remain anonymous, but authors often don’t mind their pen names being known – they just use different names for their writing in separate genres, to avoid confusing their readers.
Professionals in other creative fields also use pseudonyms, but these aren’t called pen names; for example, an actor taking on a different name is using a “stage name”. The phrase “nom de plume”, as explained by Maeve in French Words for Writers was adapted from the French “nom de guerre” – a fictional “war name”.
Famous people with pen names
Authors throughout the centuries have used pen names. You’ve probably heard of the following authors:
- George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair)
- George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans)
- Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)
And many writers today use pen names. For example, Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum is the real name of Ayn Rand (she wrote the famous novel Atlas Shrugged, examining philosophical and political themes).
Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, a fantasy author, writes under two pen names: Megan Lindholm for her earlier, contemporary fantasy, and Robin Hobb for her epic, traditional fantasy books.
Why use a pen name?
Authors use pen names for a wide variety of reasons, which include:
- To remain anonymous (especially if producing a politically or religiously sensitive work)
This is perhaps less common today, but sometimes occurs if a very personal or sexually explicit work is written. An example is the author Belle de Jour (who writes a blog Belle de Jour: diary of a London call girl and has had two books published based on the blog). Some people see this form of anonymity as a ploy to provoke media interest, as newspapers compete to discover the real identity of such authors.
- To change or conceal gender
In the 18th century, many female authors used male pen names in order to be taken seriously. George Eliot is the most famous example, though the Bronte sisters all wrote under pen names too.
This trend still continues in some genres today: for example, female fantasy or science fiction authors will often use a gender-neutral name (Robin Hobb) or use their initials (J.K. Rowling) as the genre has traditionally attracted more male readers and authors. A similar effect can be seen when male authors adopt a female pen name to write a chick lit or romance novel.
- To write across multiple genres
Lewis Carroll also wrote mathematical textbooks under his real name (Charles Dodgson), so adopted a pen name for his children’s novels. Authors today who write in multiple genres will sometimes use a different name for each one, to avoid confusing readers. Others use alternative forms of their real name; for example, the author Iain Menzies Banks writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks and science fiction as Iain M Banks.
- To recover from poor sales or reputation
If, as in the question from our reader above, an author’s real name has attracted criticism – it may be worth considering changing to a pen name. Sometimes, the first few novels by a new author don’t sell well in bookshops, leading publishers to reject future submissions: changing to a pen name is often recommended in these circumstances.
Holly Lisle suggests, in her FAQs about writing:
Authors whose first three or so books have returns of fifty percent or more are out of the game. Publishers will stop buying from them — not just your current publisher, but also the other publishers you might hope to sell to.… This is where pen names can be useful — more than one author with bad numbers has started over with a new name, in essence becoming a first novelist again and acquiring a clean publishing history in the process.
So should you use a pen name?
If you are trying to build up a reputation in multiple genres, using a pen name (or several pen names) is probably a good idea.
And if your real name (or current pen name) has attracted heavy criticism or negative publicity, switching to a new name could be a good way to recover. Even if people do know what your real name is, you’ll be referred to by your pen name and it’s likely that few people will make a connection with your previous writings.
However, adopting a pen name means building up your reputation again from scratch – which could be a particular problem for freelance writers. You’ll still have all your experience and knowledge, but you may not want to use existing clippings of your writing which were published under your previous name.
If you’re using a pen name in an attempt to remain anonymous, be aware that people are often insatiably curious when they suspect a secret – you may well be “discovered”. In some cases, this can lead to great publicity, but if your client or publisher suspects you of trying to conceal a less-than-stellar past, it may backfire.
Ultimately, only you can decide whether it’s best for you to adopt a pen name or not. Many very successful authors have done so in the past, though, and many do today – so you’ll be in good company if you decide to use one!
If you’ve written under a pen name – or even just considered using one – why not share your experience in the comments or on the Daily Writing Tips forum?