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Pseudonyms: What’s in a Name?

“Should I write under my real name or use a pseudonym?” I’ve heard plenty of writers ask this question, and from what I gather, there’s no consensus: both are valid options, each with their own pros and cons. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Real name

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L.C. Holst, author of “Fishy Frenzy,” is a Nobel Prize winner in the field of fishes, having worked with fish both wild and domesticated, and having been, in fact, a fish in her past life.

Do your professional or life experiences lend credibility to your writing?
The conventional wisdom is “write what you know.” But how do you, at a glance, convince readers that you know your stuff? If your professional accomplishments reinforce your authority on the subject you write about, you may want to publish under your real name. Building on top of any following or network you already have gives you a head start over someone who is building name recognition from scratch. It also adds weight to any technical or specialized topics you reference in your book. For example, if you’re a biomedical engineer and are working on a sci-fi novel about cyborgs, writing under your real name will allow you to convey that yeah, you do know the science behind your story. On the other hand, if you’re a surgeon who is writing a thriller about a doctor who murders people on the operating table, maybe hide behind that pseudonym.

Do you still want to be you?
Using your initials or a family name is a nice middle ground if you’d like a bit of anonymity without sacrificing your real identity. Or perhaps you’d like to pay homage to your late great-grandfather by using his name – that’s cool too. Pull together a list of maiden and middle names in your family tree and choose one that feels right. There are plenty of options that allow you to stay true to your identity without using your legal name.

Does the idea of using a fake name seem silly to you?
If you find yourself thinking, “A made up name? What am I, a Bond villain?” then don’t use one! You’re practical, you’ve got nothing to hide, and your legal name suits you just fine. If you can’t think of any reason to separate your writing identity from everything else, you don’t need to read this article. Go forth, you pragmatic wordsmith, and save the wacky names for your characters.


Photo by mariaamanda via Deviantart

Photographer: Rune Hammelstrup

Would you prefer that your colleagues not know about your writing?
If you would be embarrassed or subjected to negative consequences if your writer life collided with your professional life, it makes sense to keep them separate. Maybe you’re a computer programmer by day but are writing a thriller about hacking by night? I could see how that might raise some suspicious eyebrows. Or perhaps you write cowboy erotica and don’t want to be answering questions about that topic around the office water cooler. It may not even have to do with the content of your writing – for example, if your efficiency-obsessed boss found out you just finished your 500-page novel, she might wonder if you ever spent company time working on it, and you’d rather not have that thought cross her mind.

Do you dislike your own name?
If you think you have a rather… unfortunate name, particularly for your genre, you may want to change it. This is entirely subjective, but Gretchen McSplatfart just doesn’t have the romance-writer ring to it that Ginger Dovey does. Sorry, McSplatfart, but if I were you I’d use a pen name.

Are you a dime a dozen or have an evil doppelganger?
If you have an exceedingly common name and find yourself competing for Google search results with 1,000 other John Smiths, you may want to use a pen name to distinguish yourself. It will be much easier for your readers to find you online if your website comes up in the first page of results. The same applies if there is someone in the public eye who shares your name, especially if you really don’t want to be confused with them. I am in this situation with my legal name. Without going into specifics, I would be mortified if a potential reader or employer confused me with this person. Thankfully, I’ve got my middle initial to set me apart.

If you want to go way off the wall with a pen name (or discover your porn name – I think it’s the same formula), here’s a name generator to have some fun with:

Happy name hunting.


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