How to Choose a Pen Name for Your Writing

Whether you’re a freelance writer, poet, novelist, author, whatever label you give to your writing, if you are going to seek payment and/or publication, at some point you will likely consider the possibility of a pen name, a pseudonym.

There are many reasons why you might want to consider a pen name, especially if you write online, and I’m going to touch on them briefly before I get into how to choose the name.

Why Use a Pen Name for Your Writing: Safety & Anonymity

Okay, if you become a best selling author, people are going to know your real name. There’s really no way around it. Until you are a famous best-selling author, especially if you’re an online writer, you might want to keep your real name private. This is particularly true if you write controversial, expose’ items, or politics–there are weird people in the world, you know?

Why Use a Pane Name for Your Writing: Branding & Discoverability

When I first started writing for a living, my legal last name was (drum roll please): Jackson. Yes, my legal name at that time (not now) was Michelle Jackson. When you type Michelle Jackson into Google, it says, “Did you mean Michael Jackson?” Nope. Can you imagine me trying to brand that name and get anything into a search engines with Michael Jackson hanging over my head? Man, think about when he died. My stuff would get buried based on name.

Now, over 7 years later, I am Michelle Devon. Believe it or not, I am not LEGALLY Michelle Devon. When I tell people that writing is who I am, I literally mean it. I BECAME my pen name. If you have a common name, a name that resembles someone famous or infamous, you might want to see what your search engine competition is for your name, and maybe select a name that is less common for your pen name writing branding.

Why Use a Pen Name for Your Writing: Your Name is Boring

If your name is Jane Smith (no offense to the Jane Smiths of the world), BORING! Selling books and writing is selling information or entertainment. A clever, but realistic name, a name that sounds ‘pop’ but real… that can really help draw folks to read your stuff.

Now, let’s look at how to pick a pen name. Looking at the reasons why you should use a pen name, you can help discover what pen name works for you.

How I Chose My Pen Name

I hated my real name, have ever since I was a kid. I used to get phone calls asking if Janet was my sister and asking me what I did with my glove – at least, until I got an unlisted number. When I started editing, the publisher I worked with put the editor’s name on the LOC page, and they wanted to know what name I wanted to use. I didn’t want to use my real name. I figured whatever name I used, I would need to stick with it.

Pen Names Should be Realistic Sounding

I realize that something along the lines of Savage Beastery is funny, might signify what you write, but no one is going to take you seriously, and if they don’t take you seriously, they won’t take your writing seriously either. Cassandra Love for a romance author instantly makes my chuckle and say, “That’s not her real name.”

I personally think an author should use a real sounding name for a pen name, something with zing and pop, but real sounding.

Pen Names Shouldn’t Be Spelled Strangely

It’s hard to brand yourself as a writer, but I promise you it will be harder if you pick a strange spelling for your name. People aren’t going to remember the spelling. They will remember how it’s pronounced and it will probably be searched for phonetically on the internet. Semantically, search engines won’t recognize it to offer alternatives either. If your real name is spelled funny, you might want to consider using your name, but spelling it correctly. Eventually, if you’re a great writer and a best seller, the search engines will notice you as a person of note and will adjust, but when you’re first starting off, that will be hard.

Pen Names That Tell Gender

When I write science fiction, thrillers, or other writing that is dominated by males in the genre, I’ve used the pen name Michy Anderson and M.L. Devon. I do this, because either of those names are not readily recognized as female. This won’t turn anyone off immediately – hopefully they’ll pick up the book, and my writing will capture them, before the name turns them off because I’m a (gasp) giiiiiiirl.

You can decide to use initials, such as J.K Rowling, V.C. Andrews, etc. There are a lot of female writers who have used initials, and I think it’s for that reason. Male authors writing romance–you’re so rare, I’m not sure it will hurt you any!

Anyway, I guess the point is, before you get too much out there, before you start submitting too much, you need to settle on your pen name, try out a few, see if you can live with it. Stick your hand out and introduce yourself as your pen name. Does the pseudonym feel right to you? Can you become your pen name as a real person, not just a persona? When you go out in public for all your book signings and readings, you’ll be known by this name: does it fit you?

Is a Pen Name Required?

Nope. If you like your name, it’s easily discoverable, and you’re not concerned about privacy, then by all means, use your real name! Lots and lots and lots (in fact, probably the majority) of writers use their real names!

Oh, and btw… Devon is my son’s middle name!

Love and stuff,

PS: If you use a pen name or your real name, please feel free to write up a blog post about writing names, and give us a link to it here on the blog, or tell us in the comments how/why you selected the name you use for your writing. It might help other writers decide!

PPS: A little quiz – Real or Pen Name?

  • Stephen King
  • Lisa Jackson
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • David Weber

I think you might be surprised!