Monday, August 23, 2010

Pseudonyms: To pen or not to pen?

There are plenty of internet articles and industry blogs on the pros and cons of using a pen name, and they all make similar points. There's nothing wrong with the information provided, but the advice given neglects the current boom in social media use. In my opinion, unpublished writers contemplating pseudonym use are getting a lot of contradictory advice.

Ask an industry professional about pseudonyms and most will tell the unpublished writer that they're jumping ahead of themselves. Are they? Now, I completely understand that writing comes first and foremost. That's a given. But unpublished writers are told that, in order to improve their writing skills, they need to be entering contests, attending meetings, joining loops etc... Some people even advise blogging, tweeting or using some other method of platform building. I agree that the aspiring writer needs to join their local writing organization and interact with other writers. Writers who don't are missing out on tons of information and opportunities to improve their skills and industry knowledge. However, in this day and age, they can't join a group or final in a contest without getting their name posted somewhere on the internet. In a blink, networking is established, achievements are posted, and platforms are built...all in the writer's real name.

What about that unpublished writer who doesn't want their real name out there for all the standard reasons? I was that writer not too long ago. Let me tell you, things move fast in cyber world. For those who don't really care if their real name is used and are content to wait until an agent or editor advises them on name changes, no prob. But if a writer seriously wants to use a pen name for some level of privacy, I believe it should be used right from the start. Will it change if the publisher doesn't like it? Possibly, but chances are that if it's not cheesy and a strong following/potential readership has been established, it'll remain the same. As with all things in life, be flexible.

Some additional points on pen name use:
  • Don't confuse potential agents/editors. Official correspondence should be in your real name since that's how contracts and royalty checks will be drawn up. You can include w/a (writing as) on the title page of your submission.
  • Prior to attending meetings, let your organization know that you want your pen name on your badge. For legal and payment reasons, official memberships are done under a writer's real name and often your real name gets on the badge.
  • Prior to having a 'contest final' or 'first contract' published online or otherwise, be sure to let the person in charge know that you don't want your real name listed (unless of course, you don't care).
  • Open a gmail account in your pen name and use it when signing up for writing related loops or forums.
  • Cliches don't work here either. Don't pick a cheesy pen name. A name can be a really great or a really bad factor in marketability.
  • Don't expect unbreachable privacy unless you plan on having legal expenses. If someone wants to find out who you are, they will. When you're published, the copyright inside your book will list your real name. The only way around that is to not have your real name listed at the copyright office. This can raise legal issues regarding who wrote the work. The issues actually get grittier than that, so I don't advise that you go this route without a lawyer on hand. For most, the expense isn't worth it. The same goes for trying to keep your real name from your publisher. For tax and legal reasons, don't do it. Look at a pseudonym as giving you superficial privacy, such as at your kids' school, the grocery store, neighbors, and not having cyber freaks stalk you or your family once you start blogging or you get published.
  • Pseudonyms are great if you plan on writing in different genres, are published and need to reinvent yourself, have a cruel name like 'Marlin Grouper' or one that doesn't fit the genre you write for, want to avoid gender bias, need to keep multiple careers separate, or want to protect your children and family privacy.
  • Multiple pseudonyms can be a pain if you have to keep up with different social media accounts/identities, different blogs or websites, forget what name to answer to when someone calls out to you at a meeting.
  • Consider keeping your real first name (...responding to someone calling out to you at a meeting).
  • Remember that if you use your pseudonym strictly, you may lose out on marketing your book and building a readership based on past ties, such as alumni organizations, relatives etc... You have control. You can decide on who to keep out and who to let in. Just be aware that the line can be gray. Again, the privacy isn't perfect.
  • Don't ever, ever, ever use a pseudonym to hide behind wrong-doing. It won't work. Don't slander anyone or portray your evil Ex as the antagonist and think they won't find out about it. They will.
Don't waste your time thinking about pen names if you haven't completed a manuscript or you don't plan on doing anything beyond forum lurking. Getting that manuscript written comes first, but if you've been shying away from meetings, forums, and other critical sources of support and information just because you're not sure that you want your real name out there then by all means get a pen name! It's not the end of the world. You can always nix it for the real thing if and when you're ready. Don't let a name keep you from immersing yourself in the writing world. Just pen it!


  1. Wow, what a comprehensive post. I'm on the side of thinking it valuable to have some form of online presence before publication, even if it's just for research purposes. You have to manage it infringing on your writing time, but to me it made sense if I was starting a blog and joining social loops, that I do so with a name I mean to use from here on out. How else could I leverage the connections and network I was going to build? I didn't want to have to reinvent myself when the time came. Great post, Rula!!

  2. Thanks, Kaily. I agree. There's a balance to be had, but why reinvent yourself? Today, writers aren't as secluded as they once were. With the internet and social networking, it's no longer just about snail mailing between you and a prospective editor or agent. Pseudonyms can't be put off for quite as long anymore.