Up until I met my writing friend, Nicole, the thought of using a pen name literally never crossed my mind. I like my actual name and don’t plan on writing anything scandalous during my writing career, and those are the two main reasons I used to think writers use pen names. As I learned from Nicole, and from chatting about the idea of pen names in an episode of borrowed solace: the podcast there are many more reasons, and a lot more nuance, as to why a writer chooses to use a pen name.
If you’re thinking about using a pen name, you may have similar misconceptions about the why and the how as I had, or maybe you have entirely different concerns. One thing’s for certain — if you’re a writer now, or plan on becoming one in the future, thoughts about a pen name have likely crossed your mind. So if you have, indeed, thought about using a pen name but still aren’t sure whether you should or not, here’s some advice to help you make your decision.
What is a pen name
First of all, we should probably establish what exactly a pen name is before going any further. A pen name is a pseudonym that an author chooses to publish under rather than his or her real name. Pen names are one of those topics that are talked about quite often in the writing world but would be of little to no interest to the rest of the world. Accountants and school teachers don’t use pen names, but many of your favorite authors now, and throughout history, have used a pen name.
Why use a pen name
Writers decide to use a pseudonym for a variety of reasons, but some of the most common reasons writers decide to write under a fake name (according to Well-Storied) are to maintain a sense of anonymity, to write in multiple different genres, to create a more memorable name, or to distinguish themself from another writer with a similar name.
I’ve heard about many different reasons that writers use a pen name, but most of those reasons tend to fall into one of the above categories. For example, when I attended a writing conference a few years back, one of the keynote speakers was Wendy Corsi-Staub, a New York Times best-selling author of mysteries. She also writes romance novels, but under a different name — Wendy Markham. One could argue that the use of a pen name is defeated when everyone knows your pen name and your real name, but Wendy’s readers in either genre are pretty unlikely to be reading in the other genre, so it’s a way to separate her work into two categories of writing.
Why not use a pen name
Just like there are reasons to use a pen name when you write, there are reasons not to. Not everyone has even the slightest interest in using a pseudonym, but for those who are on the fence, it’s important to look at both sides of things.
One reason that I have seen come up over and over again when I have looked into this myself is that in our ever-changing digital age, there’s too much to juggle with a fake name. Authors these days usually have to be present online in some way, shape, or form. This can mean anything from having a Facebook page to a YouTube channel and everything in between.
The argument for not using a pen name in this world of author-as-brand is the complication of navigating the multiple names in these online spaces. Eventually, you may get so used to going by your pen name that it becomes second nature to respond to it and use it in every interaction you have, but that’s a line that can easily become blurry when you first start using a pen name. Needing to appear at events or in online workshops or at book signings (when the world eventually starts having those again) as your pseudonym can be challenging. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but there’s certainly a question of if you should — do you want to take on that responsibility?
Should you use a pen name
By now you may be feeling confused about whether you should or shouldn’t use a pen name, and that’s because it’s a bit of a confusing question! While there are tons of great resources out there to help you decide — and to help you create your pen name if that’s the route you decide to take — it’s ultimately a personal decision.
Each writer has to carefully examine their options when it comes to using a pen name. For some, there’s never been a question — they are using a pen name because their own name is boring or the same as a handful of other writers. For others, the question is a bit more complicated than that.
One thing is for certain, whatever you decide, commit to it and things will be just fine — whether the name on the cover of your future novels is the one given to you at birth or one you gave to yourself a bit later in life.