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How to Choose a Pen Name That Is Right for You


Names are a tricky subject, as many readers of Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, can attest. In our current cultural landscape the idea of renaming one's self is reflected in certain cultural dialogues: a display name on a writing forum, a rapper's stage name, a nickname from high school, or even a "dead name" which is no longer used. This concern with names is not a new one: Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, George Orwell, Lemony Snicket, and Joseph Conrad are all famous pen names, just to name a few. In many cases (especially the first four examples) these names are better known than the authors behind them: Samuel Clemens, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Theodor Geisel, and Eric Arthur Blair. These real names, by contrast to the pen names, are obscure and poorly known.

Choosing a pen name can be a useful tool and also a strong metaphor for writers. It can help change the voice of your writing; disguise your presence as the author; shield you from attacks or criticism; allow you to publish more successfully in various genres; distinguish you from similarly named individuals; and even piggyback off the success of others. So, the first question to ask is…


Why are you choosing this pen name? Is it for fun? For inspiration? Are you choosing this name because you don't associate strongly with your given name? Is it because it is part of a cultural tradition? All of these questions will inform your choice of name. As writers, however, I feel it is most important to discuss the ways that our pen names can change the reception and understanding of our writing.

Name as voice

It is important that your chosen name indicates to your audience the voice which you will be speaking with in your writing. It may be frowned upon for an English person to choose a distinctly Russian last name, for instance. This can be seen as appropriating that voice; of mimicking or stealing the cultural distinction which the name implies. The same is true of gender, and of religion and other similar qualities; and appropriation can be especially highlighted by the content of your writing. If you are writing on the experience of women for instance, and you are a man, it would be unwise to choose a female pen name in order to lend authority to your voice on the subject.

This can be further problematized: there may be instances in which a pen name is used intentionally to disguise one's gender, or to represent an alternate or changed gender identity. Rowling may use the male pen name Robert Galbraith so that she is further distanced from her works, or so that she is not "set apart" as a woman among male authors. You should know that changes such as this may be valid but can also be controversial. If you have no specific reason and rationale to change your name in such a way, ensure that your pen name matches your gender, race, and cultural background. It is safer to choose a name similar to your own than one that is very dissimilar, and there is the possibility that a pen name will be considered problematic.

Name as disguise or enhancement

A pen name can disguise who you are. For most of us this won't be an issue, but this can be especially important for individuals publishing sensitive personal memoirs or identifying information. To those readers I offer a warning: pen names almost never endure scrutiny. If you believe that a pen name will protect your identity from being found out, think again. Despite the number of authors who write under pen names, there are very few where their given names are unknown. Despite this, a pen name can disguise you in the eyes of the average reader. Most of us, browsing the shelves of our local book store, won't take the time to google an author before choosing to read their books. In this way, pen names do stave off cursory inquiry into an author's identity. Still, a dedicated reader will be able to hunt down the writer's identity.

Pen names can also be used in the opposite manner, helping your writing to stand out, rather than providing anonymity. This is especially relevant for authors who may have very similar-sounding names to already established authors. Anyone with the last name "King" (and especially horror authors) may be unable to compete with Stephen King unless they are willing to write under a pen name. This can also be used strategically to separate your works from those which you believe are dissimilar. If you hate Stephen King's take on horror, for instance, you may use a pen name that causes your novels – sorted by author's last name – to appear on a shelf that is far away from the inevitable collection of King horrors.

Finally, if your name is particularly common, you may choose a pen name simply so that you are not confused with other authors, or so that your name is more memorable.

Name as shield

As already discussed, the use of a pen name as a shield to protect you from criticism or liability should not be relied on. It is likely with any reasonably sized readership, that you will be spotted out, and your pen name will quickly be tied to your identity. Many of the legal qualities of a pen name are myths and you should always consider anything written under your pen name to be exactly equivalent to having been written under your full given name for the purposes of liability, legality, and issues of that nature.

Name as alternate identity or brand

Though your pen name is not a legally alternate or separate entity, it does help to differentiate you in various helpful ways. An author who has found success in one genre may wish to use a pen name when writing books in another genre. In this way you can avoid many of the expectations that current readers might have, when publishing writing they might not enjoy. This prevents a lover of your romance novels accidentally picking up your sci-fi epic and deciding they don't like you that much after all (when really, they just don't like sci-fi).

Further, an author's name is their brand. When people talk about what books they love, they often talk about the authors which they enjoy reading; and when people search for a new book to read, they often start with authors who they have enjoyed in the past. By using a consistent name across all your related publications, you are able to build a brand where readers recognize your name and read your books just because you wrote them.

Name as hallmark

The last thing a name can be, is your hallmark – your calling card. This is a piece of advice I give with a strong caveat: your results may vary. When we choose a name, as writers it is important that we choose something which resonates with our work; and when you choose a pen name, you are free to name yourself… well, anything.

The problem with naming yourself anything you want: it can have severe consequences. You might choose a fantasy-sounding name to distinguish yourself as an author, and find that people do not pick your book up simply because they think the name makes you sound foolish, or because they associate your name with a type of fantasy which they don't enjoy. Despite the old adage "don't judge a book by its cover," most customers do exactly that. If your name reminds them of another author they didn't like, or of a book they hated, you can bet they aren't going to give your novel a second glance.

Further, avoid choosing a name with negative associations generally: Adolf Hitler comes to mind; or which a publishing company will not accept: Adolf Hitler still comes to mind. Beware that more than just for consumers, a pen name may impact anyone's opinion of your novels: potential agents, potential publishers, and even co-authors could be taken in or driven away by a pen name.

A final caution

In conclusion: be careful. Names are powerful symbols and their meanings and interpretations are difficult to predict. They can mean a host of different things to different people. Consider your pen name can be a useful tool, especially in your marketing toolkit. If your agent or publisher suggest a pen name for whatever reason, consider their suggestion carefully before making a decision. This is especially true if they for some reason suggest a specific name: this should be a red flag that something strange is going on. Finally, consider writing under your given name or under the name you are most comfortable. Write as the person who is most authentically "you." In some cases that may be a pen name, but in most cases the name we use every day is – in this writer's opinion – the name we should use to publish our work.

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