A pseudonym, also known as a pen name, is a fictitious or fake name. Pseudonyms have a rich heritage dating back to 1833. Mark Twain was a pen name wielded by the famous American author Samuel Clemens. Theodor Geisel, better recognized as Dr. Seuss, held three pen names; Dean Koontz, a famous novelist, held upwards to eleven! Many an author has opted to use one (or more) for various reasons. It’s perfectly natural to wonder, Should I use a pseudonym?
A Tool for The Writer’s Toolbox
Pseudonyms are a versatile tool for any writer’s toolbox. Some critics view them with disdain, climbing atop their soapboxes to shout staunch opinions like:
- “Only cheesy writers use pen names.”
- “Fake and cheap authors use a pseudonym.”
- “Any author using a pen name isn’t worth reading.”
It’s okay; we get it. Some folks don’t like pen names. If you want to hate on literary legends like Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, that’s your prerogative. We can understand to a degree. After all, a pen name is a phony by-line.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word originates from the “French pseudonym, from Greek pseudōnymos bearing a false name, from pseud- + onyma name.” But before you judge, take a minute to understand why a pseudonym is a useful tool for every writer’s toolbox and why smart authors choose to use them.
What would you do if the world forced you into a mold? You’re a circle, but you’re smashed into a square hole and left there, cramped and uncomfortable, for all eternity. You will never grow. You will never change. You’ll just stay there. Forever…
So, at this moment, I really don’t care if you’re okay with being Gene from Aladdin. How did that quote go again? Oh, yes…
Screw that itty-bitty living space! Pigeonholing is every writer’s worst nightmare. It’s literally like shoving all of our creativity into one, itty-bitty living space. Ouch!
In the writing industry, if you succeed in science fiction, you run the risk of being forever stereotyped as just a sci-fi author. Publishers who know your name might back away from your attempts to shift genres. And if you’re self-publishing, readers might never think to associate your name with anything but sci-fi.
While this attitude has been slowly evaporating, some writers prefer to avoid it altogether by using new pen names as they explore new genres. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, from a marketing standpoint, it’s somewhat smart. It allows the author the opportunity to brand themselves in specific niches—a feat that may be accomplished using one name or a series of pseudonyms.
Raise your hand if you’re a writer with a day job! I know I used to have a day job outside of writing, and the idea of my employer realizing I made money from selling my writing was unacceptable. In fact, if I hadn’t been careful, it would have cost me my job because my employer didn’t like the idea of their employees working outside of their 8 to 5 day job. It didn’t matter that my side work was in an entirely different industry either.
Hey. Do you want to know a secret? When I started freelance writing in 2002, I used a pen name to ensure my employer never knew about my side work. I ended up building an entire business around it, too. My moonlighting turned into my daylighting.
Anita Lovett, that’s my pen name. And I love it, for reasons I’ll divulge later. So stay tuned!
Another reason writers sometimes use a pseudonym is to create a smoke screen between themselves and their work. If a writer is dabbling in highly opinionated or risqué literature, they may wish to preserve their personal reputation. A pen name quickly becomes a useful tool.
Yet another smoke screen arises from the writer who cherishes their privacy. Many writers take great pride in their work, but they do not want to be recognized. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be cornered at the grocery store for an autograph.
I remember sitting in a literature class, listening to a student rant about writers who operate under one or more pseudonyms.
“They just aren’t credible,” they said. “They’re frauds, fakes and insults to the literary world.”
The same student was shocked to learn later how a pseudonym can actually add credibility. Let’s face it; not all of us have first or last names that scream professional. Some are downright impossible to spell and others…well, some of us wonder how in the world our last names became accepted as surnames.
How would your book sell if readers couldn’t spell your name to find it in the first place? Yes, they can look it up by the title, but the point of being a writer is to make a name.
Using a Pseudonym
As you can see, there are practical reasons for choosing to use one or more pen names. If you find yourself opting to dabble in the use of a pseudonym, here are some helpful tips to apply:
- Find an Available Name: You can pull inspiration for a name from books, search engines or even the telephone book. While it is seemingly impossible to avoid using a name someone else has, try to avoid using the name of a real person—especially one active in your niche. Do not try to use another writer’s name or pieces of their name.
- Keeping It a Mystery: You must decide how important it is to keep your true identity concealed. You won’t be hiding your true name from the publisher or even the Internet. It’s surprisingly easy for someone to link your alias with your true identity. Trust me. I know. So, how incognito do you want to be?
- Be Informed about Copyright Issues: A pseudonym can dynamically change length of copyright and copyright itself. Get the facts at Copyright.gov.
- Research State Laws: Some states require registration of a pen name you are conducting business under. While most states seem not to apply this to writers, it’s beneficial to check it out in your state.
Deciding whether you should use a pseudonym, that’s tough, but it can be a useful tool for any writer when wielded properly. Are you using one now? How has it benefited you? Share your experience in the comments below!
Feature Image Credit: konstantynov via 123RF Stock Photo