What Are Pseudonyms and Why Do Writers Use Them?
  • 6-minute read
  • 18th December 2019

What Are Pseudonyms and Why Do Writers Use Them?

A pseudonym – or a pen name – is a false name used by an author to publish work. But why do authors use pseudonyms? And what exactly makes a name a pseudonym? Let’s take a look at how they work.

What Are Pseudonyms?

A “pseudonym” is a false name. More specifically, a pseudonym is:

  1. Not the name someone uses on a day-to-day basis
  2. Only used for a specific purpose

If someone changes their name legally or adopts a nickname, it isn’t a pseudonym. These are just names people use to identify themselves in their daily lives or to certain friends. But if someone uses one name in their daily life and another to publish writing under, they are writing pseudonymously. And the second name is a pseudonym or a “pen name.”

Other examples of “pseudonyms” include the aliases used by criminals, stage names used by performers, superhero secret identities, or even online usernames. The key is that, in all cases, the “false” name serves a specific purpose or is associated with a specific activity. For now, though, let’s focus on literary pseudonyms. So, why do authors use pen names?

Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?

There are several reasons an author may choose to use a pen name:

  • To maintain anonymity when writing about something controversial, especially if it could also affect their personal or professional lives.
  • To establish a strong brand or identity among readers. For instance, if you are a horror writer, you may want to use a name that reflects your genre.
  • To avoid stereotyping based on gender or ethnicity. It also allows writers to cover topics they wouldn’t otherwise for fear of prejudice.
  • To distinguish their writing under one name from work under another name. For instance, a crime writer may decide to publish a romantic novel and choose a pen name to use in this new genre.
  • To distinguish their writing from that of another author or public figure. For instance, a new writer called Stephen King would need a pseudonym unless he wanted to compete with the famed horror novelist.
  • To write together under a single name. Sometimes, if more than one person is working on a writing project, the group of authors will adopt a single pseudonym rather than using all their names.
  • To get a second chance with publishers. Yup, some authors use a pen name because their previous book failed and publishers have ignored them since. By adopting a pen name, they have a chance at a fresh start!

In most cases, though, writers use pseudonyms because they feel they’ll stand a better chance of success than writing under their own names. One alternative would be to publish something anonymously, but pseudonyms at least allow the authors to take credit for their work!

7 Famous Writers Who Have Used a Pseudonym

To finish this post, let’s look at a few authors who have used a pen name.

1. Mary Ann Evans / George Eliot

At the time Mary Ann Evans was writing, women’s fiction was associated with light-hearted romance. But because Mary had ambitions beyond this – and to avoid unwanted scrutiny of her personal life – she adopted the male pen name George Eliot. Now, Middlemarch is regarded as one of the greatest English novels of all time, so it seems to have worked out okay.

Maybe that is why Mary/George looks so pleased with herself in this portrait.
Maybe that is why Mary/George looks so pleased with herself in this portrait.

Many female authors have taken this route at some point (e.g., the Brontë sisters all used male pen names at one point). But the Brontës are known by their own names today, while George Eliot is still known by her pen name!

2. Agatha Christie / Mary Westmacott

What does someone whose name is synonymous with crime writing do when she wants to publish a romance instead? Use the name Mary Westmacott, of course! This gave Agatha Christie a chance to write love stories “freed from the expectations of her mystery fans.”

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3. Joanne Rowling / J. K. Rowling / Robert Galbraith

When the Harry Potter author decided to branch out into crime fiction, she wanted people to judge her writing on its own merits. To ensure this, she adopted the name Robert Galbraith. The ruse was soon discovered, but she has kept the name since for her crime writing.

Oddly, though, even J. K. Rowling is a pen name! This is because her publishers, worried that young boys would be less eager to read a book by a woman, urged Joanne Rowling – her real name – to use her initials instead of her first name. And since Rowling does not have a middle name, she picked the middle initial “K” in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen.

4. Theodor Seuss Geisel / Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss).
Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).

Would it surprise you to find out that the man who wrote The Cat in the Hat was not a qualified doctor? Probably not. But “Dr. Seuss” is definitely a great pseudonym for a kid’s author, immediately conjuring up a character that “Ted Geisel” may not quite evoke.

Seuss himself noted that his pen name “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose.” He added the “Dr.” to his pen name, on the other hand, because his father had always wanted him to practice medicine.

5. Patricia and Traci Lambrecht / P. J. Tracy

A mother–daughter team, P. J. and Traci Lambrecht wrote seven mystery novels together between 2004 and 2016, sharing the pseudonym P. J. Tracy. Sadly, P. J. Lambrecht passed away in 2016, but Traci has continued writing under the pen name, so P. J. Tracy lives on.

6. Stephen King / Richard Bachman

Stephen King is a prolific writer. So prolific, in fact, that he once had to adopt a pseudonym just so he could publish everything he wrote.

This was based on the idea that the public wouldn’t want more than one book a year by Stephen King, but they might want one by King and one by Richard Bachman. The fact they were the same person? Don’t worry about it.

7. The Secret Barrister / ???

For all the pseudonyms above, we know the real writer behind the pen name. But some writers use a pseudonym so they can stay anonymous. We see this in the case of the Secret Barrister, whose book Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken looks at the UK justice system. The author has used a pseudonym so they can write openly about the problems they’ve encountered without worrying about it damaging their career. Many writers have done this over the years, including now-famous names like Mary Shelley and Thomas Paine.

This is just a sample of the many authors who have used pseudonyms. But what about you? If you were to use a pen name, what would you call yourself? Let us know in the comments! And if you’d like an expert to check anything you’ve written, we have editors who can help.

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