Using a pen name (also known as a pseudonym, literary double, or nom de plume) is a writing tradition that is both old and widespread. Many of the classic authors we are familiar with wrote and published using a pen name—Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) being one characteristic example.
The reasons behind using a pen name can vary. Sometimes, one’s real name might be considered too long or too difficult to pronounce. “Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum” would’ve been a challenge for a publisher (and a nightmare for a cover designer), so “Ayn Rand” was preferred.
Moreover, some famous female authors have opted for a pen name to hide their gender, in order to be taken more seriously. Examples include George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Currer and Ellis Bell (Charlotte and Emily Brontë), and James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).
Using a pen name can have some important benefits regarding marketing and publishing. Plus, using a pen name can help your writing—for reasons you might not readily appreciate, as I’ll explain later in the post.
However, here’s a crucial question: Can using a pen name also hurt your writing?
The answer, I’m afraid, is yes. Having used a pen name for some of my works, I can confirm there are both pros and cons in publishing with a pen name. Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons, sometimes they don’t. That’s why it becomes important to know how using a pen name really works so that you can decide whether it’s worth it or not for you.
We could divide the reasons behind using a pen name into two broad categories: critical and nice to have. The former refers to cases where publishing a work with your own name could put you in harm’s way—think of journalists or bloggers located in places where freedom of speech is not safeguarded.
As most writers thankfully aren’t affected by such a thing, I will focus on the latter category, namely reasons that are nice to have, helping your writing.
At this point, it’s important to recall something I’ve talked about before, for instance, in my post on what is writing: Writing is a very broad concept that neither begins with typing “Chapter 1” nor ends with typing “The End.”
Writing encompasses a large variety of experiences, expressions, actions, and decisions that all together form “the writing process.” It might begin with an idea and it might end with a publishing deal.
In this framework, using a pen name has several benefits. They are mostly related to publishing and marketing, but, as I promised in the introduction, I will also show you a couple of benefits a pen name could give you in regard to the writing craft itself.
Using a pen name mostly occurs for benefits related to marketing and publishing. This is especially the case if your real name is … unfortunate in some way. I don’t know what the thought process was behind Mr. Beezow Doo Doo Zopittybop-bop-bop’s name choice, but I certainly know it could never be on the cover of a book, for all kinds of reasons, including practical ones—unless the font size was set to 1px; maybe.
Even if your real name isn’t as outlandish, a pen name can be more memorable, more pleasant to the ear, and overall more efficient in terms of marketing. Compared to, say, “Kimberly Schneider,” “Cath Cason” is arguably easier to market: It’s shorter, easier to spell, and even more melodic thanks to alliteration (both words beginning with the same consonant sound).
Still, even if your parents were clairvoyants and knew you’d become a writer, giving you an awesome name, there are other marketing reasons for using a pen name.
Although many of us focus on one form or genre, there are a significant number of authors who lead a “double life,” so to speak. They might write both fiction and nonfiction, or they might even write in wildly incompatible genres, such as horror and middle-grade juvenile fiction.
My favorite example is Adam Roberts, an English-literature academic. I’ve actually met him at a conference, and he has a great sense of humor. This sense of humor has allowed him to write a series of parodies, and, though there’s nothing wrong with “Adam Roberts,” when you write a book such as The Va Dinci Cod, “A.R.R.R. Roberts” might be a better option for a pen name.
Although the identity of A.R.R.R. Roberts is known, there are also cases of authors who publish a book using a pen name without revealing their identity.
I am one such author.
As I mentioned earlier, I have used a pen name for some of my published works. Although “Chris Angelis” is not as hapless as Mr. Zopittybop-bop-bop’s name, I use it only for my literary-fiction novels. But I have published a few genre novels (mostly horror and science fiction) using a pen name.
This choice has allowed me to focus on promoting my literary fiction—which is more important to me—without muddying the waters with genre fiction. To put it bluntly, I don’t feel entirely comfortable with signing my genre novels with my real name.
Moreover, using a pen name has also benefited me in ways I didn’t expect, ways that have to do with writing itself.
Whether you’re a fiction or a nonfiction author, you partially become someone else when you write. This is perhaps clearer for fiction writers, where you must infuse your characters with life, but even as a nonfiction writer, you often need to understand things from someone else’s perspective.
To put it simply, you are a better author when you can think as a different person. Studies suggest that reading literary fiction can make us more empathic, and such dynamics also work the other way. That is, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (the very definition of empathy) can make you a better writer.
Perhaps you can begin to understand why using a pen name can improve your writing.
When I write horror or science fiction, I’m not Chris Angelis. I’m … well, I guess I’ll keep that a secret. Knowing that I don’t need to put my own name under the title allows me to write in ways that I wouldn’t without a pen name. I am sillier, more naive, and even more simplistic—all elements that are more consistent with at least some genre fiction compared to literary fiction (let alone academic writing).
When I read what I’ve written using a pen name, I feel very peculiar; it’s very conflicting. I am both embarrassed and satisfied. It’s a text that is both somewhat below my skills and precisely what it needs to be for its genre. It feels like a text written by someone else—the very embodiment of a literary double.
However, this compartmentalization of my literary output has also had drawbacks. I’ve learned to live with them, but whether or not they’re a deal-breaker for your own individual situation, that’s up to you.
Ironically enough, one of the biggest benefits of using a pen name has also been, for me, a major source of frustration.
In particular, keeping my literary fiction separate from my genre fiction in terms of promotion and marketing has produced a result that is perhaps not so surprising: Although I have been able to promote my literary works more efficiently, at the same time, I cannot even mention any of my other works; not since I have decided to keep my identity a secret.
To bypass this limitation, I would have to create different digital identities, apart from the literary ones. For each pen name, I would need to have a separate blog, social media accounts, forum or other online community memberships, and so on, all actively maintained. There would barely be any time left for writing.
Still, this situation is something I have come to accept, for two reasons: Firstly, I’m much more interested in literary fiction—genre fiction is more like exploring my authorial identities and polishing my craft, the way I described in the previous section. Secondly, keeping my “genre identity” a secret is more important to me than any promotional benefit.
But that’s just me.
You’re not me, and I’m not you. Even you might not be … you—that is, you aren’t now the writer you were five years ago; and that’s great. What this means is that not only is each one of us a unique author with unique priorities, but also that these priorities change over time.
Regarding your own writing and publishing context, there are many other things to consider when it comes to using a pen name.
What happens if your pen name becomes more popular than your real name? I know that I would feel amused and nothing much would change, but this situation might not apply to all writers.
And what if you choose a pen name that you later regret? “Wilson Barbedwire” might sound awesome as a crime pen name when you’re 20 years old, but will it sound as great when you’re 30? As a teen, I thought Weekend at Bernie’s was the greatest movie ever made.
Finally, here’s an uncomfortable question for you: What happens if your identity is revealed? Would the public care? Would it affect your work, and how? To use myself as an example, I would again be a bit amused, but it wouldn’t greatly affect things. But what if you’re writing juvenile fiction with your own name and, say, erotica with a pen name?
Even if you’re comfortable with people knowing your pen name, maintaining two author names might cause you frustration trying to be two people as you promote your work.
This isn’t a perfect world, and there are no perfect solutions. In the end, using a pen name comes down to what’s important to you.
Using a pen name—and whether or not to reveal your identity—isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. For better or for worse, verba volant, scripta manent; spoken words fly away, written words remain.
The book you published using a pen name when you were 18 might not be something you’d like to claim as your own today. It took almost 20 years and immense worldwide success for Anne Rice to finally reveal she was A.N. Roquelaure, author of explicit erotic literature.
Ultimately, as with everything else in writing (and life in general), using a pen name is a balancing act. There are pros and there are cons; some of them might apply to you, some not. But at least knowing about them can help you decide what’s best for you and your writing.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.