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Pen Names: What You Need To Know About Using A Pseudonym

Many writers use pen names—but there’s a right way and a wrong way to publish your book, stories, poems, or essays under a pseudonym. Actors and artists often use fictitious names, and writers sometimes choose to create under a different persona as well. So how do you know if you should use a pen name or not? What are the advantages and disadvantages of noms de plume for writers? There are several good reasons to use pseudonyms, and there are also some reasons not to.

Writing under a fictitious name was a very common practice in the eighteenth century, when writers and journalists used pseudonyms to pen controversial or even illegal articles and letters to the editor. Some examples of writers who use pen names: Ben Franklin used this practice extensively, and when he used a pen name, he often created an entire character to go along with it. Dean Koontz and Stephen King, both prolific writers, used pen names at the suggestion of their publishers to avoid overexposure. And George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans, who used a male pen name in order to be taken seriously in a male-dominated society.

These days we enjoy more freedom of expression than ever before, and writing under a pen name is more a choice than necessity. If you’re a new writer, making the decision to use a pen name is probably not top priority for you, unless you fall under one of the categories below. Your job is to focus on your work, not your name; and you want to get exposure, not hide your true identity. As you begin to build up writing credits, think of yourself as a product. Unless your “brand name” truly does not reflect what you want the world to see, there’s no good reason to protect your identity—unless, of course, you’re writing an exposé on the mob.

Why Use A Pen Name? 

There are several reasons why writers choose to adopt pen names.

Another author “owns” your name. Your mother was a big fan, and your name is Sylvia Plath.

Your name doesn’t fit the genre. Bruiser Ratchet or Belinda Blood may want to choose more romantic names to break into the romance genre. (However, Bruiser Ratchet would be a great name for a detective/suspense novel writer, and Ms. Blood’s name suits the horror genre to a tee.)

You want to conceal your real identity. You’re a prim and proper physics professor at a large university but write erotica on the side—under an assumed name, of course. A pen name would also protect the author from political persecution or prejudice. Imagine writing about homosexuality or even atheism from a personal perspective in the 1950s without using a pen name.

Your name is too hard to pronounce and/or spell. If your name contains ten syllables and several Xs and Zs, perhaps a shorter, easier-to-spell name would be in order. And if it can be pronounced correctly by the average Joe, that would be good. Remember: easy to say, easy to spell, easy to remember.

You’ve been burdened with a truly bad name to begin with. Consider Adolf Mussolini. Ima Hogg. Harold Bahls. Mercedes Binns. Tanya Hyde. Rachel Inequality. You get the picture.

You want to cross genres. Anne Rice, famous for her vampire series, uses pen names for her collections of erotica, and she would probably take up a new one if she wanted to move into Sci-Fi or Westerns.

You’ve been published before, and sales were not good. In this case, your publisher may suggest a pen name to help boost sales of your new book (and break the association with the poorly received book).

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Other Pen Name Issues

The minute you decide to take on a nom de plume, be prepared to stick to that name in your correspondence and at writers’ conferences and book signings. You want people to associate that name with you, not give them a slew of different names to remember.

Hint: If you do choose to go with a pen name, choose a name that’s not too generic or linked to someone else. Try an online search of your prospective name to see what comes up. You don’t want your readers to confuse you with the famous foot fungus specialist of the same name.

Literary agents and editors will expect a certain protocol for writers using pen names, especially if submitting a query using a pen name. When sending queries to editors or literary agents, use the name you want to publish under for the byline and use your real name in the information block. If you’ve been published frequently under another name, make reference to it in your query (“I’ve been published previously under the name ABC, but in my foray into Genre #2, I’ve decided to use the name XYZ”). In the submission process, you don’t want to confuse the editor or agent by using multiple names.

When you are ready to sign a contract, make sure your editor and agent know your real name and its correct spelling; your contract should include a space for both names as well. Also be sure that your bank and local post office are aware of all your personas, or you may have trouble cashing checks.

When filing for copyright protection for your writing, use your real name for “Copyright Claimant” and your pen name for “Name of Author.” If you do not want your legal name associated with the pen name, enter only the pen name under “Name of Author” and identify it as such (Lucy Lickumchuck writing as Lucy Smith). Use your pen name for “Copyright Claimant” as well. However, if your copyright is held only under your pen name, you can run into legal disputes about copyright ownership—consult with an attorney.

Want to know more about the legal ramifications of pen names? Read Pen Names II.

Planning to use a pen name to guard your identity for nonfiction? Read Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble.

Writer’s Relief has been working with authors who have pen names since 1994. We manage the submission process for writers of books, stories, poems, and essays. We help writers connect with literary agents and editors through careful, targeted submissions. We’ve seen some great pseudonyms over the years—and we welcome the opportunity to work with you, whether you have a pen name or not.

55 Responses to Pen Names: What You Need To Know About Using A Pseudonym

  1. Hi I would like to reiterate Kitty Mocha’s query and ask if I want to use a pen name because I don’t want anyone I know to know it’s me writing, how do I protect my true identity when asked to do signings by my publisher and how do I avoid releasing a photo connecting with my writing??

  2. Hi Jacob,

    On the manuscript, you would just use your pen name. Book Title by Pen Name. Your real name will be in your query letter and contact info.

  3. I actually had an ancestor named, “Ima Hogg”. She was Ima and married a man with the last name Hogg. She took his name because it was the 1800s and anything else was not acceptable.

  4. Hi! Should I include my pen name on my manuscript for a novel? So the agent can see? What I mean is like:

    Book Title

    Real Name: (real name here)

    Under The Pen Name Of: (pen name here)

  5. We are not lawyers, so we cannot offer legal advice. We would recommend speaking with an attorney who specializes in publishing.

  6. Hi,

    I am an activist new to writing. I want to be taken seriously so I developed a pen name and character. The problem is, my character is based on some people in real life so I think this could be a legal issue.


  7. Hello,
    I am going to selfpublish under pen name but still I want to protect my copyrights. What to write in book? Like:

    Author: Pen Name
    Copyright True Name, 2017


    Author: Pen Name
    Copyright Pen Name, 2017

    Another option, but complicated, is to set up a company Pen Name LLC
    Author: Pen Name
    Copyright Pen Name LLC, 2017

    I think I should register my book at with pen name for the autor and true name for copyrights, but do I even need this protection in case of publishing via amazon?

  8. Hi. I just started writing a couple of years ago. I am working on a couple of things. I am currently using a pen name. I love writing but don’t want a lot of people to know it is me. I am quite and shy but have been told I have a knack for writing erotica and would love to continue using. I was looking into blogging but most of what I read states you need an author photo. How do you go about that when you want to stay unknown?
    Also, how does it work, if you get a book deal and have to do signings?

  9. Hi Misty,

    Thank you for your comment. Showing your writing to others is a scary thing. While we are not experts in copyright law, we do advise that when you post your poetry online (regardless of whether it’s published under a pseudonym or not), most literary journals will consider your work previously published, which could severely limit your opportunities for publication. If you want feedback on your work, you could ask a trusted friend or family member to give you an honest critique. We also advise joining a writing group. You can find more information about that here:

    We hope this helps.

  10. Hello, I had a few quick questions. I have an uncommon name, but I am a bit afraid of the judgement I may receive from those who know me about my poems (they are a bit silly at times, a bit personal at times, and a bit sad at times). Thus, I am thinking of using a pen name if I ever publish my poems.
    However before going forth, I wanted to post some on a social media page (ie. Twitter, Instagram) to get feedback and grow. I am thinking of using the pen name I would use if I published my poems. Do you think that would be a good idea? As well, is there a way to ensure that nobody copies the work that I post online (according to Canadian Law)? Thank you very much for your time and assistance.

  11. If a group of authors are writing under a pen name and they have to refer to themselves, do they use ‘I’ or ‘We’?

  12. Hi Danny. You can continue using the pen name you wish to write under. The US Copyright Office states: An author of a copyrighted work can use a pseudonym or pen name. A work is pseudonymous if the author is identified on copies or phonorecords of the work by a fictitious name. Nick names and other diminutive forms of legal names are not considered fictitious. Copyright does not protect pseudonyms or other names.

  13. I have a question regarding online publication.

    I have recently opened a page on a popular social media site, and have published a few poems there under a pseudonym. I also have a few of them on another website and under another handle/pseudonym.

    I know that, in theory, I am the owner of the material I write. Can I just continue as before and stick with the (new) penname of the recently opened page? Or am I leaving myself wide open to possible future copyright infringement? Should I copyright the actual pseudonym?

    Thanks for you help and advice.

  14. Hi Carla. We recommend doing an internet search for journals that publish erotica and submitting to them.

  15. I have written an erotica short story and trying my first attempt at publication. How do you suggest I go about finding a publisher for my genre?

  16. Hi, Timi–
    We would suggest sticking with the pen names throughout the series to maintain continuity and to avoid confusion.

  17. Hello, Your example of the Physics professor very closely describes BOTH myself and my co-author, we are writing about some very contentious societal issues and as we are both professionals with regular jobs, we do not want to jeopardize our day to day jobs, but ironically if things work out as planned we are working on potentially 10 books in total to be written and published over time. At some point during the 10 book period we do plan to finally use our actual names. Are there any potential problems of switching back to our real names at any point in the future or is it better to keep the pen name and maybe just add a clarification on the real names within the book? ior simple stick to the pen names from start to finish?

  18. David, I would imagine that most of your patients would (even if they don’t read thrillers) be enthralled that they knew a published author AND that he was THEIR doctor. Plus, they probably try to give you additional ideas of what you could write about.It might be an opportunity for you to broaden your practice and marketing your book by giving it away within your office, say if a current patient sends you a referral and various other ways of marketing. And I’m sure you and your colleagues would have a lot to talk about on the golf course.


  19. I’m a Surgeon and I’m writing a novel because I love writing and I want to see myself as a successful and a famous novelist. I was considering to choose a pen name, but I can’t quite come to a decision. I don’t have issues regarding privacy, but I’m not sure whether my patients would find me a good doctor after they learn that I write thriller novels when I’m not operating someone’s bad appendix. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

  20. As someone with the letter ñ on her last name and a pretty generic first name I’m glad you added some information on how to use the pen name regarding copy right, contracts, and bank problems. I’ll need to get in touch with an editor or publisher and explain this slowly (I have 0 experience in that)

  21. Let’s talk about pen names today. Not the type of pen name you adopt because you need to hide your writing career from employers

  22. You should mention your pen name in your cover letter. Other than that, you can use your usual email address.

  23. Hi, I want to submit my work to a contest but you must submit via email. Should I use my email address even though it consists of my full, real name (like or create a new email account under my pen name? I’ve tried to think of an email name that doesn’t have either name but it seems unprofessional.

  24. Hi, I want to choose a pen name, as my name is sort of hard to spell (Sumedha Korishetti). So I wanted to use an anime character’s name for my last name of my pseudonym. Is it legal? Will I have complications? Also, the name of the character is made – up, too, but sounds really common and familiar. What should I do?

  25. Hello~
    I’m kinda new to the writing scene, and I expressed my interest with my family about it.
    Long story short, my parents don’t approve. I decided to use “Tsumiki” as an alias since they might get upset in the future.
    Is that okay?
    -Mikan Tsumiki

  26. James, we would advise just using your pen name. If people believe you are co-writing with yourself, people might not take the project seriously.

  27. Hello,

    Just wondering is it possible to “co-write” with yourself.

    I have a large quantity of research done for a non-fiction. However, due to my sex I believe I have hit something of a “brick-wall” if you would in finding relation with some of the people I am questioning. This isn’t interviewing, per say as we will never meet face to face; this is emailing them questions.

    So “co-write”. I have a pen name I have used prior, for other work, and am thinking because it is the opposite sex and will probably relate better to the interviewees [the research I am looking at is dominated by one sex over the other].

    Or would that be treading some line somewhere as there isn’t actually a co-author.

  28. Hi! I’m interested in writing books, but a main concern of mine is my name. My first name is terribly common and generic, while my last name is horrendous and everyone always asks how to pronounce it. (I don’t think anyone would want the last name “Zacherl” stuck on their book, would they?) And while I despise my name, I’m having trouble finding a pseudonym. My top favorite is Jane Redd, a mix of my middle name and nickname I’ve had for six years now. However, I searched this and there is one other author using this as a pseudonym. What should I do?

  29. Hello,

    Back in the “old days” before the digitalization of all of our personal information, pen names protected authors who spoke out against the government or wrote memoirs that included confessions of unlawful activity.

    Is that even a possibility it today’s age? Or, does your true name ultimately HAVE to be linked to your pen name for payment and tax purposes? I assume the government could always find out the true identity of an author if they wanted to?

  30. This article was very informative! I actually decided to use a pen name and have built many social media sites up surrounding that pen name, but I’m beginning to second guess that decision. I feel like I need to say that I’m writing under a pseudonym because I oddly feel like a fraud even though pen names are normal. With that being said, even though I like my pen name, should I continue to use it without having to say that it is a pen name?

  31. Thanks, Kristin. Natalie, keep in mind, though, that most publishers, agents and journals consider work that has been published on a blog (or anywhere online) to be previously published. And most will not consider previously published work for traditional publication.

  32. Natalie, self publishing opportunities these days include just putting a blog up and/or making a .pdf of your work available for download.

  33. What if you want to use a pen name to protect sensitive family, but you feel driven to write a memoir? Would it be better to just call it fiction (even if it is not) or to use a pen name so they aren’t obviously affiliated?

  34. Joseph, if you feel it is appropriate in your circumstance, then a pen name should be used.

  35. Hi, my name is Joseph Perez. I am a white guy with no Hispanic or Latino heritage. Also both names are very common. Also on the back of a book written by a white guy and seeing my picture and the name Perez would seem confusing and maybe even deceitful to the audience. Do you think I should use a psuedonym?

  36. I’m a bit new to the writing scene and want to use a pen name. My name, as you can tell, is a bit unusual and I can’t begin to tell you how many mispronunciations I’ve gotten for it. My planned pen name would be Midnight O. Angell. I also want my work to speak for itself and honestly I would rather not have my family know exactly what I write since they don’t approve of me writing for a living in general. Would you recommend using a pen name for this situation or would it be better if I used my actual name?

    I’m leaning more towards a pen name based on this article, but the legal ramifications are a bit intimidating. Any suggestions?

  37. Natalie, Unfortunately, there are not many publishers that would be willing to publish someone of your age at this point in time. We would suggest working on your writing and wait until you are of an old enough age to handle the business side of writing (both in traditional and self-publishing).

  38. I’m 10, and turning 11 June 22nd 2015, I want to be an author when I’m older and I know I will be. I have written a story, a 25 page story on a long piece of paper (about 30cm). I want to publish it because all my friends and teachers agreed it was a good story and leaving suspense here and there.
    I want to publish it, but will a publisher take me seriously? And I really wanna use a pen name, but will they accept me with a Pen Name?
    And can you list some publishers in Canada?
    Also, is there anyway you can SELF publish a book by yourself when you are young?
    Please, help my dreams come true….

  39. Hi, I’m Melonie, thats my real name. I was thinking of becoming an other when I’m older, and I TOTALLY am because of my true passion for writing. I also wanna illustrate my books as well because teachers and EVERYONE say I’m a great artist. Let’s get to the point….
    I want to use a Pen name, Avaline Spirits. But I’m just afraid if one day I dislike that name but its too late. Or if people like my closer friends now its me and dont like my name. Suggestions?

  40. I’m quite new at writing and was wondering for some time whether I should use a pen name. Thanks for pros and cons – they made my decision easier to make!

  41. Blythe, absolutely! Upon publication, you can have your name written any way you want (for example: J.K. Rowling). However, you’ll still want to include your last name in all legal documentation.

  42. I’d like to use my own name for my writing, but another author has already taken it! (which is odd, because my name isn’t that common and I’m not named after anyone). Would it still be considered my real name if I went by my first name and middle name instead of first name and last name?

  43. Kasha, Whether or not you use a pen name, you should always interact with publishing industry professionals (like literary agents and editors) using your real name. Having a pen name does hurt or help in terms of getting a publisher to take you seriously. The only thing that can help with that is good writing!

    How much attention you get for publshing depends on where you publish, what genre you publish in, and how much advertising/marketing support your writing receives.

    Good luck!

  44. I’m a forteen year old writer and was looking for a Pen name because of my young age. Would a publisher take me serousely? Would getting it published so young cause a lot of attention?

  45. Collaborative authors often choose to use a single pen name, usually because it simplifies things. Ellery Queen, the “author” of mystery novels and stories, was actually a pen name for two authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee). Sometimes a book series starts out with one author but, for one reason or another, the original author is unable or unwilling to contribute to subsequent books. The authors of the rest of the series publish subsequent titles under the name of the original author. It is a common practice. It also eases transactions between editors/agents to work with a single name. The only sticky areas arise when matters of contracts and royalties and copyright emerge, and those are issues best discussed with an attorney.

  46. Thanks for that, Kriste, both the email and the response to the comment.

    We do have a written agreement, so have that covered. I received a boilerplate ‘contract’ from the Australian Society of Authors and wrote one for our two separate projects/groups.

    My question was more about the use of pen names for joint author projects. I note that the article you quote doesn’t mention that at all.

    Any comments on the pen name for multiple people?

  47. The following article sums it up pretty well:

    Ask the Lawyer: Writing Together; Writing Sub Rosa
    Pinpoint issues to resolve before getting involved in a co-authoring situation, and learn how to write under a pseudonym.
    by Amy Cook

    Writers who share the work of writing a book—researching, writing, revising—are joint authors and, under copyright law, the work is a joint work. You will share ownership of copyright, authorship credit, royalties and the right to sell the work. While no contract is required to create joint authorship, if you wish to remain friends with this person, it is wise to create an agreement before getting too involved in the project. Here are some of the issues to address:

    Allocation of responsibility. The agreement should spell out the work of each collaborator. Is one person plotting the story line and the other writing dialogue? Are you alternating writing chapters? Is one more creatively inclined and the other a researcher?

    Compensation. Revenue may be divided as you choose. If you choose an unequal split, it must be put into writing and signed by all co-authors.

    Expenses. Expenses are usually shared in the same percentage as advances and royalties. However, you may want to include a clause that obliges each collaborator to get the other’s written permission before incurring a major expense.

    Authorship credit. Whose name goes first if you each do roughly half the work? If one partner is doing more, will her name be in larger type or above the other’s name?

    Termination. If things don’t work out, who keeps the writing that’s already been done? And what if "the big termination" were to happen—death of a co-author? Copyright law governs much of what happens after a project is completed, but what would happen before completion?

    Control. You may assume that you will jointly decide all creative, legal and business issues that arise, but what if you are deadlocked? Some mechanism for decision-making should be included, such as mediation or arbitration.

    This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest (

  48. One reason I didn’t see in your article was a co-authorship situation. I’d be interested in your opinion on that. I have been writing with 2 other people, so listing a co-authorship or even subbing as 3 people starts to raise red flags. We have chosen a pen name for one group and a different one for another. I am the spokesperson for each group.

    What would you advise your clients in a situation like this?

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