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Why & How to Use a Pen Name

Authors have used pen names for centuries, and it’s likely you have a read a book by an author using a pseudonym. But what exactly is a pen name, and how and why do authors use them?

What is a pen name?

A pen name, sometimes called a pseudonym or a nom de plume, is a name a writer uses instead of their own.

 

For example, Jane Eyre author Charlotte Brontë originally published her work under the name Currer Bell. Her sisters Emily and Anne did the same under the names Ellis and Acton Bell, respectively. 

Why do authors use pen names?

To conceal their identity

Some writers use a nom de plume to cloak their identity. Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, world-famous author of books like My Brilliant Friend and The Lying Life of Adults, says her anonymity is essential to her life as a writer. It also makes her a compelling, and mysterious, figure. Ferrante’s identity has never been revealed, and little is known about her life.

 

John Le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell. Cornwell, whose work includes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, and The Little Drummer Girl, worked in the British secret service and secret intelligence service before becoming an author. Foreigh service officers are forbidden to publish under their own names, so David Cornwell became John Le Carré.  

To honor someone important to them

Others may choose a pseudonym to pay homage to someone important in their life. Author and academic bell hooks, whose name is Gloria Jean Watkins, chose her pen name as a tribute to her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.

To explore new styles, genres, or audiences

Some established authors will publish under a pseudonym when they want to dip into other genres, give themselves the freedom to explore new ideas and styles, or avoid coloring readers’ perception of the work. 

 

For example, queen of mystery writing Agatha Christie published a handful of novels under the name Mary Westmacott to allow herself explore her imagination more freely. Joyce Carol Oates did the same with her book Lives of the Twins, which she published under the name Rosamond Smith, to “escape from my own identity,” but reception to the change was not warmly received.

To represent collective authorship

Sometimes a pseudonym is used when more than one writer contributes to a work, known as a collective pseudonym. Dungeons & Dragons novels are published under the name T.H. Lain, a collective pseudonym for the nine different authors who have contributed to the series.

To avoid discrimination

You’ll also find that many women have published under pen names in order to be taken seriously or be published at all. Middlemarch and Silas Marner author George Eliot was actually named Mary Ann Evans and Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke, who wrote Out of Africa, published under the name Isak Dinesen.

To avoid being confused with other writers

A writer with a common name—James Baldwin, for example—might choose a unique nom de plume to avoid being confused with another writer (in this case a very famous one), celebrity, or public figure.

How to choose a pen name

Think about why you want to publish under a different name. What you need to accomplish with your pseudonym will inform how you choose it.

 

If you simply want to avoid confusion with another writer, consider using initials or a close variation. So if your name is James Baldwin, try Jim Baldwin or J.R. Baldwin.

 

If you need to conceal your identity altogether, like David Cornwell (a.k.a John le Carré) you should choose a name very different from your own. A Sandra Jones who needs to conceal her identity should go with something more like Erica Montgomery than Susan Jones.

 

Choose carefully if you want to pay tribute to someone important in your life. Your grandmother may not want you publishing slasher novels under her name, but she may be comfortable with you using a variation.

Before you choose a pen name

  1. Google it to make sure you won’t be overshadowed by another writer, an actor, a politician, or other public figure with the same name.
  2. If you’re using the name of a friend or family member as a way to honor their influence in your life, check to see if they’re OK with this.
  3. Sit with it for a few days to see if it feels right. Write in on a Post-It and stick it to your computer, write it on a white board or on the front of your journal.

How to use your pen name

If you’re going to use a pen name, use it consistently. Consider it a full identity, so determine what you will publish under this new identity. Perhaps you’re a journalist on the crime beat by day and your byline reads Leticia Smith. By night, you write graphic fantasy novels under the name Lana Winston. If you run a blog about fantasy novels or write reviews of graphic novels, you may want to publish them under Lana Winston. 

 

That being said, you may be like Dean Koontz and want to create multiple pen names so you can occupy a number of genres and forms (Koontz has written under more than a dozen names). If you choose to go this route, consider that you can dilute the power of your work by spreading it out across lots of names.

 

You could be a once-published graphic novelist Lana Winston and a once-published poet Sally Woods, or you could be Lana Winston who’s published both a graphic fantasy novel and a book of prose poems.

Famous authors who use pen names

Pen NameReal Name
Maya AngelouMarguerite Annie Johnson
Acton BellAnne Brontë
Currer BellCharlotte Brontë
Ellis BellEmily Brontë
Lewis CarollCharles Dodgson
Diablo CodyBrook Busey
Joseph Conrad Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
Isak DinesenBaroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke, sometimes called Karen Blixen
Egor DonEugene Gordon
George EliotMary Ann Evans
Elena Ferrante Identity unknown
O. HenryWilliam Sydney Porter
bell hooksGloria Jean Watkins
E.L. JamesErika Mitchell 
T.H. LainPhillip Athans, Cory Herndon, Bruce R. Cordell, Ed Stark, Johnny L. Wilson, Nate Levine, Murray J.D. Leeder, David Gross, Jess Lebow.
John le CarréDavid Cornwell
Stan LeeStanley Martin Lieber
MolièreJean Baptiste Poquelin
George OrwellEric Arthur Blair
Françoise SaganFrançoise Quoirez
SakiHector Hugh Munro
George SandAmantine Lucile Aurore Dupin
SapphireRamona Lofton
Dr. SeussTheodor Seuss Geisel
Lemony SnicketDaniel Handler
Mark TwainSamuel Langhorne Clemens
VoltaireFrançois-Marie Arouet

 

Do you use a pen name? Are you considering using one? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.

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