To Be or Not to Be (Anonymous): The Pros and Cons of Adopting a Pen Name
Even a pen name has many pseudonyms, noms de plume, monikers, aliases, noms de guerre.How could a writer resist?
Among the most famous pseudonymous authors in history are the Brontë sisters who called themselves Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; Louisa May Alcott who used the ambiguous A.M. Barnard; George Eliot, who is barely known by her real name Mary Anne Evans—even Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, used the pen name Lewis Carroll. Of course for women in the nineteenth century and earlier it wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity; attaching a man’s name to their novel would make their work legitimate in the eyes of the world.
While that’s thankfully not the case anymore (for the most part, at least. *sigh*.), there are many reasons why pen names are still widely used by modern writers. So if you’ve ever considered donning your own pseudonym, stick around while we discuss the pros and cons of literary disguise.
A huge draw for many authors is the ability to publish personal work and remain anonymous. This is a particularly popular choice for romance and erotica novelists who want to keep their real name away from potentially controversial subject matter. Similarly, a writer publishing an exposé or an autobiography might use a pen name to protect their identity and avoid potential legal issues. So while we’re real believers in having no shame in your writing game, if you’re worried about keeping the subject of your writing away from your friends and family, a pen name is the long-established way to go.
While there are definitely upsides to being anonymous, it also has the potential to manifest feelings of shame and embarrassment, which is the last thing you should ever associate with your writing. Whatever you’re writing, judging your writing by genre or “quality” before anyone else can has its plusses and minuses—what you may feel ashamed of in an insecure time in your life you might have the chance to feel deeply proud of one day. As long as it speaks to you and your readership, then that’s all that matters. It’s also important to bear in mind that a pen name is not a guarantee of anonymity, especially if your writing is well-received; as in Elena Ferrante’s case, there’s always the unfortunate possibility of someone finding out who you are.
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Some writers adopt a pen name if their given name doesn’t quite suit the genre they write for or the mood they want to evoke. For example, if you’re fantasy or mystery writer, using initials instead of your full name, as J.K. Rowling was advised to do in order to encourage little boys to read her books (ffs), may lend itself to your subject matter.
Changing your name entirely can be a particularly effective move when it comes to branding yourself as an author, since an unusual or interesting name has the potential to pique a reader’s interest and make them want to pick up your book. For example, some writers choose a genre-specific word to use as their last name to create a sense of overall thematic unity.
While going all in on your author branding might be a good idea at the start of your career, it can also box you in if you find that, later on, you want to veer away from a specific genre and write general fiction. J.K. managed her desire to write adult murder mystery after her Harry Potter series by adopting her own full nom de plume: Robert Galbraith.
A collective pen name is useful when a series is being written by two or more authors. A popular example of a collective pen name would be the Nancy Drew mystery series, which was published under the name Carolyn Keene, but was actually written by several writers: an effective way for its publisher to keep the popular series going long after the original author has requested out.
Of course having different authors writing different books in a series has been known to create noticeable shifts in the style from novel to novel. Without proper editing or a baseline to work off of, it can put readers off and betray the pretense of a single author. So if you do have plans to collaborate on a series with a fellow writer, we recommend making sure you hire a proficient editor and request that a comprehensive running style guide be kept for everyone’s reference.
And there you have it, some of the pros and cons of using a pen name! We hope this has helped you navigate your own curiosities with pseudonyms, and given you some things to think about when it comes to your own writing career. Now go forth and write!
You might have the perfect pen name picked out, but do you have a plan for how you’re going to get your novel published? Fear not! Download our Publishing Guidebook to learn how to make your publishing dreams a reality!
Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.
Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.
Georgia is JEC's Content Writer, a published poet, and past Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for TheAlbatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.
Jaime is a Research Curator at Royal Roads University and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Communications Specialist.