Freelance writing under a pen name is common practice for reasons like privacy, branding, and positioning. Pen names have been used for centuries, but as more people start freelance writing as a side hustle or after a long career in another industry, they have taken on a new air of importance.
Of course, if you use a pen name incorrectly, you could end up confusing your audience or even causing people to feel deceived. Here’s what you need to know about when, why, and how to use a pen name correctly as a freelance writer.
What is a Pen Name?
A pen name (also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume) is a fictitious name that an author uses in place of their real name when publishing content they have written.
Case in point: My name is Emily Reed, but I once published a brochure for my local community under the pen name Sandra Collins. There was nothing controversial about the brochure, but the topic (heart health awareness) had nothing to do with my professional writing career and I didn’t want to confound my clients or cause people to call on me for health-related writing since I don’t offer such a service.
You might be thinking about using a pen name for similar reason, like to separate your work and personal projects; protect your privacy; or offer a buffer if you decide to cover a controversial topic.
Why Do Some Writers Use a Pen Name?
There are a handful of reasons writers may use a pen name, including:
- Privacy: Authors sometimes use pen names to avoid being recognized and potentially discriminated against for qualities like their age or gender.
- Branding: A writer might use a pen name to create a brand that aligns better with their writing style or the subject matter of their articles — like Dr. Seuss, a pen name can become a brand unto itself.
- Separation: If you want to delve into a vastly different topic than you normally work with, like romance writing, a pen name can help create separation between your unrelated writing projects.
- Legal reasons: Say a writer has signed a non-compete agreement that prevents them from publishing under their own name in a particular field. They may still be able to publish under a pen name until the agreement expires.
- Marketing purposes: If a writer has a name that is difficult to pronounce or remember, a pen name can make their work more accessible and appealing to readers.
If you’re like me and many other freelance writers, you may also simple be an introvert and perhaps you’re shy about putting your name out there. If that’s the case, it’s totally okay to use a pen name to help you gain confidence in your field.
Is It Legal to Write Under a Pen Name?
Yes, it is legal to write under a pen name or pseudonym.
Using a pen name does not affect the legal rights of a writer to their work, as US copyright laws protect original works regardless of the author’s name. The author of a work is the person who created it, and they have the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and publicly display or perform their work, whether they share it under their real name or a pen name.
However, it’s important to note that if a writer is using a pen name to hide their identity for fraudulent or illegal purposes, such as creating content that deceives others, a pen name will not protect them. Once officials figure out who is behind the pen name, they would have full legal responsibility for their actions — so don’t think about using a pen name to offer questionable investing advice.
Famous Authors Who Used Pen Names
Countless famous authors have used pen names for some or all of their works. Some authors published exclusively under pen names and their true identities weren’t revealed until decades later or even after they passed. Here are some of the most famous examples:
- Mary Ann Evans used the pen name “George Eliot” for her novels like Middlemarch and Silas Marner.
- Samuel Langhorne Clemens used the pen name “Mark Twain” for his novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Charles Lutwidge Dodgson used the pen name “Lewis Carroll” for his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
- Theodor Geisel used the pen name “Dr. Seuss” for his children’s books, including The Cat in the Hat.
- Stephen King used the pen name “Richard Bachman” for several of his early novels, including The Running Man.
While pen names get a lot of fanfare in the fiction world, they’re also used in short-form content shared online as well, including blogs and articles.
Tips for Choosing a Pen Name
Alright, so you’ve decided to go with a pen name. How do you pick one?
- Choose a name that is easy to remember and reflects your writing style or genre.
- You want your pen name to be unique and memorable, so avoid common names or ones that are difficult to pronounce or spell.
- You don’t want to choose a name that is already associated with another writer or brand, so do some research once you come up with a list of names.
- Make sure your pen name is not trademarked. You can check this by doing a quick search on the US Patent and Trademark Office website.
- Be consistent with your pen name. Use the same name on all your writing and author profiles to establish a consistent brand and build your following.
- Be prepared to disclose your real identity to clients or publishers, if necessary.
A name isn’t something you should be changing all the time as that will only serve to confuse your followers and it can hold you back in earning recognition for your work. So, make sure you choose a pen name that you’re happy to live with and continue using from here on out, lest you wish to start over at some point with a new identity.
Downsides of Using a Pen Name
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering freelance writing under a pen name:
- It’s not foolproof — If you want to operate exclusively under your pen name and not expose your personal identity at all, you’ll likely need to form an LLC or another legal entity so that you can sign contracts and file taxes as a company instead of as an individual.
- Authenticity takes time — When using a pen name, it can be harder to establish your brand and build a following because you’re trying to bring a persona to life out of nowhere. If you don’t do a good job bringing the pen name to life, readers may feel disconnected from you as an author.
- Marketing is harder — Marketing and promoting work under a pen name can be difficult because you simply can’t conduct interviews, get on podcasts, or leverage some of those more exciting marketing opportunities. Also, it may be challenging to establish trust with readers if they cannot put a face to the name.
- You might miss opportunities — As your roster of work grows, you might begin to find overlap between the work you’re doing under different pen names, but it can be difficult if not impossible to merge the audiences you have built, which can hold you back.
Over the years, countless writers have come clean and “claimed” the identities of their famous pen names, but sometimes it’s met with backlash. Readers might feel deceived or have trouble relating to you after having associated your work with a whole other person for so long. These concerns might not seem like a big deal, but it’s important to consider them before you start letting a pen name take all the credit for your work.
Speaking of taking credit, there’s a relevant topic I want to address very briefly…
Ghostwriting vs. Pen Names
When you write under a pen name, you are disguising your identity but you’re also retaining all rights to the published work. That means you get to keep 100% of the royalties and whatever other profits or financial benefits result from the content.
Ghostwriting, on the other hand, doesn’t involve a pen name. Instead, a ghostwriter creates a piece of content, such as a book, article, or speech, on behalf of someone else and that person is credited as the author. Ghostwriters typically negotiate a flat fee, but their client ultimately owns the work, so they may get to keep any royalties and other profits for themselves (it all depends on your contract).
Just like a pen name, ghostwriting won’t reveal your identity to readers, but the person that you are ghostwriting for will own the copyright to whatever content you create for them. Memoirs, fiction works, website content, and so many other forms of writing are often ghostwritten and it can be a pretty profitable field.
Make a Name for Yourself
As a ghostwriter of nearly a decade, let me tell you that, despite all my introverted tendencies, it’s pretty cool to see *my* name in print!
While I used to adore writing under the veil of a ghostwriter, I began seeking out more and more opportunities to take credit for my work over the years. And, as a ghostwriter, I often felt like I was starting from square one even though I had thousands of words secretly under my belt.
So, before you willingly choose to not work in your own name, I’d suggest you take the time to consider your long-term plans. If you’d like to chat with some professional freelance writers, pen namers, and ghostwriters, let me invite you over to the Society of Writers — a mentoring community for writers like you! Claim your invitation now and start chatting.