Why Authors Use Pen Names and How to Choose One
Did you know that Emily Bronte published her novel Wuthering Heights under the pseudonym Ellis Bell? Or that despite what the name suggests, George Eliot was actually a woman? (Her real name was Mary Ann Evans!) A pen name sometimes called a pseudonym or a nom de plume is a fictional name a writer uses instead of their own. Authors have been using pen names for centuries. There are several reasons for this choice. If you’re curious to know, we’ll take a look at a few of them in this blog. Further, if you’re planning your debut novel and want to publish under a different name, we’ll help you figure it out.
Let’s first explore the question-
Why do authors use pen names?
- To conceal their identity
Female authors dating back to the nineteenth century (and prior), could not get published because they were women. Writing was considered an “inappropriate” profession for women. Women writers were routinely rejected by publishers on account of their sex. Thus, women who wished to get published were compelled to adopt a masculine pen name. However, the practice of concealing one’s identity behind a fictional name was not restricted to women. Men who wrote exposé books on espionage and crime protected themselves behind their pseudonyms. Today, many writers may use pen names to disguise their true identity for their day jobs, not wanting colleagues to know that they write a particular genre and be subject to scrutiny or embarrassment.
- To explore new styles, genres, or audiences
Some established authors choose to publish under a pseudonym when they want to experiment with other genres. Doing so gives them the freedom to explore new ideas and styles, or avoid colouring 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 to 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”
- Their real name is already in use
A writer with a common name- Ryan Howard, for example—might choose a unique nom de plume to avoid being confused with another writer, celebrity, or public figure. For instance, in 1899 the British politician Winston Churchill wrote under the name Winston S. Churchill to distinguish his writings from those of the American novelist of the same name. Or, a writer may have a super plain and common name and want it to be more unique and memorable to potential readers.
- To honour a person or a place important to them
Some writers create a name that will honour their country. George Orwell chose his pseudonym to reflect his deep love of England. George is the patron saint of England, and Orwell was the name of a river where he loved to go sailing. 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.
Now that we’ve explored some of the reasons why authors choose pseudonyms, let’s get down to choosing the right one for you–
- Think of this exercise as choosing a name for your “character” (in this case, you). The simplest pen name would be a variation of your own name. For instance, you could play around with your middle name, nickname, or initials.
- Determine why you want to publish under a different name. What you want to accomplish with your pseudonym will inform how you choose it. For instance, if you want to conceal your gender identity, choose a name that is more commonly suited to the opposite sex. You could retain part of your original name as you do so. For example, if you’re called Julian Bridges, you could write under the pen name Julia Bridget. Or, you could choose to opt for a more gender-neutral name, such as Morgan Sky.
- Before you choose a pen name, research thoroughly to make sure you won’t be overshadowed by another writer, a politician, an actor, or another public figure with the same name.
- If you simply want to avoid confusion with another writer or public figure, consider using initials or a close variation of the name. So, if your name is Laurel Winston, try Laura Wilson.
Choosing your pen name is an important decision, as it will define your identity as an author. It can be a delightful and exciting process as well. We hope the above insights will be helpful as you do so. Make sure you spend some time and effort in doing so before it goes on the cover of your brand-new book!