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What Is a Pen Name?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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A pen name — also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume — is a fake name that a writer uses to claim authorship of a particular work, whether fiction or non-fiction. There are many reasons that a writer may choose to use a pen name, and, though they are used for published articles, poems, and short stories, their most frequent use is in the writing of literature such as novels. There are few restrictions on the choice of what a pen name can be, and an author may have more than one that he or she uses at a time. While pen names cannot be copyrighted, the names of celebrities and famous people often carry an added weight that allows them to be trademarked, and use of these names as a pen name is restricted.

There are several common reasons that authors throughout the world over the course of the centuries have chosen to use pen names. One of the most frequent is the subject of sexism. A woman writing in a field or manner frequented by male authors may choose a male pen name, and vice versa. Sometimes gender is merely disguised, however, by using initials for the first and middle name, and spelling out the surname.

Another reason for using a pen name is when an author decides to write something experimental. Publishers may not accept the work when it is outside of the writer's normal range, resulting in a form of typecasting that famous actors often suffer from as well. The pen name protects an author from undo comparisons and criticism of the new work. Even Benjamin Franklin used the pen name Silence Dogood to write a series of letters that were published in The New-England Courant, his brother's paper, since nothing he wrote at his young age of 16 had ever been published. American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, actually used a number of pen names in his writing career in a variety of genres.

Fictitious names are also employed for a far more mundane reason. An author's actual name may sound inappropriate for the type of material that they are writing. An overly formal name or one with obvious connotations to strong masculinity or femininity may be misleading to the type of work that the author wishes to produce. Novels in particular are often bought based at least in part on the type of image a reader has in their mind of the author, and pen names are chosen very carefully to project the proper tone the author seeks for his or her work.

Famous pen names sometimes cause authors more harm than good. Certain authors have become renowned by work penned under their true name, when it is later uncovered that they have an entirely different body of work under a pen name. When a pen name is created, often an entire back story for the life of this imaginary author also has to be created to satisfy curious fans. When these fans discover that the author behind the name and his or her entire history don't actually exist, it can have a negative impact on the writer's image.

Some authors also use pen names with the sole purpose of remaining anonymous. When writing is an avocation and their primary career is at stake, authors often choose to use a pen name. An athlete or mayor of a small town, for instance, might be adversely affected if others knew they regularly produced teenage gothic horror novels or epic tales of the adventures of cartoon badgers. When Joel Chandler Harris, an American journalist of the 19th century, decided to write folklore stories based in the rural South, he made up an imaginary character who would regularly come visit his newspaper and relate the stories. Harris knew he couldn't use his real name, so he created one that grew to be an American icon of the period, Uncle Remus, who had tall tales to tell about a creature of the woods named Br'er Rabbit.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On May 30, 2014

I always wondered why Samuel Clemens used a pen name. Of course, Mark Twain has a distinctive ring to it. Perhaps Clemens liked the sonics of the name and decided it was memorable. It worked, obviously.

Pen names have been used at different times, for different reasons. Nowadays, most of the writers who use pen names (the ones I know, anyway) do it to protect their privacy. You can look anything up on the Internet these days, and I suspect using a pen name saves them a lot of hassle and worry about stalkers and so forth.

By Grivusangel — On May 30, 2014

Knowing pen names of famous authors helped me in English classes, and more directly in Scholar's Bowl. Knowing Acton Bell, Currer Bell and Ellis Bell were Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte's pen names was always good for several extra points in a bonus question. Knowing some trivia is actually beneficial.

The Bronte sisters, of course, used masculine pen names so their work would be taken more seriously. I have a feeling though, that anyone who read anything they wrote would surely have realized a woman wrote it. I can't imagine otherwise.

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