How and When Should Writers Use a Pen Name or Pseudonym?

When should writers use a pen name or pseudonym? If they decide to adopt one, how should writers use a pen name or pseudonym? We dive into these questions here.
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When should writers use a pen name or pseudonym? If they decide to adopt one, how should writers use a pen name or pseudonym? We dive into these questions here.

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While speaking at a workshop over the weekend, I was asked about using a pen name. The writer already had a byline as a journalist and wanted to break into women's fiction and romance. So there were a couple questions: When should a writer use a pen name? And how should a writer use that pseudonym when dealing with editors and agents?

(Can you copyright a pseudonym?)

These are common questions I'm asked frequently at live events in person and online. So let's look at how to handle them.

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When Should a Writer Use a Pen Name or Pseudonym?

There are any number of reasons to use a pen name. In the example above, I believe the journalist wanted to create two bylines: one for journalism, the other for romance and women's fiction. Often, this can be a good reason to create a pen name. For instance, John Sandford created his pen name, because he already had a novel from another series published under his real name.

(Three Reasons to Use a Pen Name.)

However, there are other good reasons for using a pseudonym than just competing bylines or genres. For some writers, they prefer anonymity. Others feel their name is too common or that their name is too close (or exactly the same) as an already established writer and/or celebrity. And some like the liberating power of putting on a new persona.

All of these (and more) are valid reasons to use a pen name or pseudonym. Once you've decided to take this route though, how do you deal with the outside world?

How Should a Writer Use a Pen Name or Pseudonym?

As an editor, I've had to deal with a few freelancers who've used pen names, and this is what I would suggest for anyone submitting their work under a pen name or pseudonym. I encourage other interpretations to be shared in the comments below.

First, I believe you should make pitches and submissions using your pseudonym and that you don't need to let your editor or agent know you're using a pen name until your work has been accepted. If you have experience or reach with your real name, it's likely that will only benefit you if you use your real name on your current project. So if you use a pen name, become that person.

(39 sample queries that worked for multiple genres.)

Second, I prefer freelancers who use pen names to communicate with me using their pseudonyms. This may not be applicable with all editors and agents, but it helps me avoid putting the wrong name in the byline—or spending significant time double and triple-checking that I'm using the right name.

Of course, you'll want to make sure your correct name is included on your tax forms and in your contracts. In fact, your contract should probably include your real name with a note that you're writing as (pen name).

Final Word on Pen Names and Pseudonyms

To use or not use a pen name or pseudonym is a personal choice. There's not really a right or wrong answer on this—unless you do share a name with a well-known author and/or celebrity. Just remember: If you do use one, be ready to take on that new persona (even if it's very similar to your actual identity).

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