Should I Use a Pen Name?

An age-old question

I’ve been experiencing some more pandemic-related schedule slippage, but I know I owe y’all three more columns, and the final two are ones I prepared a while ago. So those will come out this week, and thanks for sticking with me this past year!

For today, before wrapping up I wanted to write up another question I see a lot: should you use a pen name?

This is a pretty personal question, and everyone will have to figure out the answer for themselves. But here some common pros and cons people consider in picking whether to use a pseudonym.

Reasons to use a pseudonym:

  • Privacy — Though of course be aware that a pseudonym will only be a small layer of protection. Enough digging would still find out personal information about you… but it makes it a little harder and puts another obstacle up for anyone to doxx you.

  • Google separation — This is a very good reason to use a pen name, even a pen name that might not even be very different from / anonymous from your real name. Especially if you have something like a day job under your real name, academic publications under your real name, personal social accounts under your own name, or anything else you want to keep separately “categorized,” it can be really helpful to have search engine separation. That way, whenever anyone searches your fiction byline, they find your fiction; whereas whenever someone searches, say, your academic byline, they find your academic articles. This is one reason authors who write in vastly different genres sometimes choose to do so under separate pen names, even if the connection isn’t so secret.

  • A hard-to-spell/remember/pronounce name — You certainly don’t have to pick a different name just because you think people will have trouble with yours! After all, rumor has it that when Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked if he ever considered a stage name because people found his hard to pronounce, he said something like, “But they never forget it.” And nobody should ever feel obligated not to go by their own name. But it’s also fine for this to be a reason for a pen, if you’re feeling it.

  • A very common name / one similar to another author’s — Again, you can certainly still use your name if it’s common or easily confused with someone else. After all, it’s your name! But it’s also not a wrong reason to pick a pseudonym, either.

  • Hiding ethnicity and/or gender — Unfortunately, there’s still systemic prejudice in the publishing industry. Just for example, sexism is still a reason some women choose to go by initials. I hate that this is still a reason.

  • You want something unconnected to other name changes — For example, if you think you might get married and/or divorced, or go through any other name changes, you may want to choose a byline that will be a constant in your professional life and still consistently feel like you.

  • Branding — Maybe you want a name that “sounds” a bit more euphonious with your brand, like something sharper and more abrupt for thrillers or something more fanciful for absurdist fantasy. Sure, why not?

  • Re-branding — And sometimes, if you’re switching genres or trying to recover from a major career setback, re-branding with a new and different name will be what makes sense to do, regardless of whether you used your real name for the first one.

  • Or if you just want to — And if you just want to pick your own byline, that in itself is a fine reason to use a pen name.

And here are common reasons not to use a pen name:

  • You feel a personal connection to your name — After all, it’s your name, and maybe you want to see it in print.

  • Something about your name is important to your identity — For instance, maybe you’ve already switched names later in life because of affirming gender identity, reinventing yourself, or separating from abusive family, among many other important reasons people change names. Or maybe your name is strongly connected to your family or culture. Or maybe you were named after someone in a way that’s important for you to recognize and honor.

  • You started publishing under it and you want to continue building your bibliography — I know some people who have switched after their first few publications, and it’s been fine, but if you decide it makes the most sense to keep going with your real name, that’s cool too.

  • You want your byline to be connected to your non-writing work — This is especially true for people trying to leverage their profiles from other lines of work. For example, a well-known YouTuber who writes a fiction book, or a computer scientist who writes a technothriller, or a lawyer who writes a legal thriller — maybe it would make sense then to keep the same name and cross-pollinate publicity.

  • Contracts are slightly easier when using a legal name — This is not actually too big of a reason, given most of the industry is used to writers having pen names. So it’s not really a reason not to use a pen name, in my experience. But it is true that there’s a little less contract/payment friction when your legal name matches your byline, and when contracts start getting bigger and hairier, this starts to matter more. So even though dealing with contracts and payments under a pen name isn’t too big a deal in almost all circumstances, that still might feel important to some people, especially if you have any other personalized headaches when it comes to contracts and payment (for example, if you’re working from outside the U.S.).

  • You just want to — Nothing wrong with that!

In the end, you’ll have to pick what feels right to you. There’s no wrong answer here. Just try to think through the future scenarios of how you might want to brand/promote/identify yourself and how it will feel. It does get harder to switch your choice the deeper you get into a writing career, but you can always do that, too — I know several people who’ve switched after a lengthy short story catalog or even after releasing some novels. It’s not ideal, and it’s not something you want to do at the drop of a hat — your byline becomes your brand name, after all — but it’s also not impossible, either.

Pick something that feels good to you, whether that’s your everyday name or one you invent only for your writing.