Can You Be a Successful Freelance Writer With a Pen Name?

Can You Be a Successful Freelance Writer With a Pen Name?

So you want to be a freelancer… but you don’t want to write under your own name.

Maybe you want to be able to write political essays without your employer recognizing you, or submit personal essays without your family recognizing you (Hi, Mom!). Maybe you’re a woman who wants to write about a topic like game development, but worries about .

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to want to start your freelance career under a pen name.

The question is: should you?

Is it possible to be a successful, pseudonymous freelancer?

Pen names and personal brands

I bet you can name at least 10 writers with nom de plumes without having to do any research. George Eliot (real name: Mary Ann Evans). Currer Bell (real name: Charlotte Brontë).

The literary world is full of Mira Grants and J.D. Robbs and Robert Galbraiths, pseudonyms all.

But those are authors, not freelance writers. They might have agents and editors ready to help them develop their pseudonym as part of their brand — a brand which often includes connecting the pen name to the real person behind it, the way Robert Galbraith quickly to be J.K. Rowling.

A freelancer writing under a pseudonym has a different challenge.

Are you going to develop the pseudonym and brand — complete with writing website and active social media profiles — before you start pitching?

Or are you going to try and sell an editor on the idea that your as-yet-created pen name will be a better choice than your existing name and reputation?

Like it or not, today’s editors often look for freelancers who are able to both write well and share articles to Twitter followers, respond to comments or otherwise interact with the publication’s online community.

They’re looking for writers who bring their own personal brand and reputation to the publication.

All this is hard to do if you’re starting from scratch with a pen name. Not impossible, of course. Just harder.

“Real names” vs. writer names

Now that I’ve clarified the difficulty of writing under a pen name, I should also clarify that you are in no way required to write under the name on your birth certificate.

Plenty of freelancers have developed their own professional identities.

If you want to use your initials and your last name — like J.K. Rowling — or if you want to use your first and middle names, or even if you want to create a new writer name that feels right to you, that’s fine.

Part of freelancing is getting to craft your own career, and that includes the name you want to put out into the world.

The difference between this kind of name and a pen name is that you are creating an identity, not obfuscating one. You’re not trying to avoid being recognized; you’re giving your personal brand a name that you can stand behind.

Occasional anonymity is different

Let’s say you’ve already started to build your brand under your own name and you want to write an anonymous piece — or an anonymous column, a la .

Or let’s say you’ve never written anything before but you want to pitch and write an anonymous first-person essay about a personal experience.

That’s fine. The anonymous article or column is a standard part of the writing genre.

An anonymous piece differs from a pen name piece in that the anonymous work states to the reader that the author does not wish to be publicly recognized.

A pen name, on the other hand, deliberately misleads the reader into thinking that a person with that name exists.

Some editors will be happy to run anonymous work and others may take a bit more convincing. If you want to run an article or essay anonymously, be up front about your reasons and be ready to pitch that article to a different outlet if an editor is unwilling to consider anonymity.

So. Back to our original question.

Can you become a successful freelance writer with a pen name?

Here are my thoughts, from both the writing and editing perspective:

It is possible to build a freelance career under a professional identity that is different from your legal name.

There are many reasons why you might want to make this choice, whether you’re choosing a name that fits your gender identity or avoiding a name that has already been “taken” by another writer.

It’s a lot harder to build a freelance career under a pseudonym.

Today’s freelancers can’t live passively behind their bylines; they need to actively share, discuss and promote their work while connecting with readers, writers and editors.

We’re at a point in time when sharing your writing means sharing who you are, at least to some extent. If readers don’t have some idea of the person behind the name, they become less interested in what you have to say.

If you’re considering using a pen name because your employer has rules against moonlighting, be careful.

Don’t jeopardize your day job for a $50 blog post.

If you’re worried about harassment, talk to your network.

If you’re considering using a pen name because you are worried about harassment, reach out to other writers working in that beat and ask them about their experiences and how they both deal with harassment and also protect their privacy.

Be ready to defend your choice.

If you want to use a pen name because you don’t want anyone in your personal life to know your true opinions on politics or social issues, expect a good editor to push back.

As an editor, I understand there are some situations in which anonymity is necessary — and there are other situations in which I need to work with a writer to develop their ideas to the point where they feel comfortable sharing them under their own name.

If you’re thinking about pitching a piece of writing that makes you uncomfortable, it might mean that there’s something about the pitch that isn’t quite right yet. Even an anonymous — or pseudonymous — piece should be something you’re ready and willing to send out into the world.

Have you ever asked an editor to run a piece under a pen name? Was your request granted? What advice do you have for writers considering pen names?

Filed Under: Freelancing

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24 comments

  • Deanna says:

    I totally see what you’re saying. As a freelance copywriter, I’m known by my name. I’ve developed a reputation as a writer in the alternative health field. However, I’m publishing my first middle grade novel under a pen name.

    That’s because my real name is so strongly tied to my copywriting career. My copywriting website URL is even my name! To separate my copywriting from my fiction writing, I needed to adopt a pen name. Since this is my first book, I’m hoping to be able to build my reputation as an author with that name. We’ll see how it goes!

  • It is about separating identities. Not everyone wants to broadcast their name and be a celebrity. This is a decision, which publishers can be agreeable with and authors too. Facebook and other social media make for slim chance of not being found out. The transition from private individual to that of known writer in the public domain can be intrusive, but it is an unlikely event, for a first time author to meet with best seller success on his or her first attempt. It does happen, but even then a pseudonym might be useful, where you want to continue writing your next novel. The media and others might have problems with the fact that you enjoy writing and it is a living and breathing phenomenon – not just a commercial venture
    The pseudonym I find useful, because your birth name may be everyday and run of the mill. Story line can match the author name more effectively, where the name is seen as appropriate to the narrative and action. Readers like sequels. Where they enjoyed reading the first novel. That appropriate author name might be the hook in to their reading the next one.

  • Rita says:

    I agree with the comment that it’s about separating identities. I’ve been transitioning from graduate school for several years now. I keep a blog in which I write about the arts, culture, and academia, under a pen name. I also work as a copywriter, ghost writer, and grant writer simply to earn a living. In those capacities, I write on finance, health, education, solar energy, and a ton of other topics. If a name is used (ghost writing doesn’t), I use my own name.

    I started this the two identities because I wanted to experiment with how a pen name would feel in terms of feeling freer to talk about situations in academic that were painful. It was more freeing, just as I suspected it would be.

    If I move to publishing essays on my intellectual interests, I’ll use my own name, not the pen name.

    Frankly, I have found it a real challenge to have one “brand” that covers both my intellectual interests and the copywriting that I take very seriously, but do to have enough money to support myself. I would love to see advice on how to do that, and examples of how other people have done it.

  • Carol Tice says:

    This is a great topic, Nicole — but the point you’ve left out is that you can’t usually write reported nonfiction under a pseudonym. Editors wonder what you’re hiding, and it raises an ethical/credibility issue.

    If you’re writing an essay and have a stalker, absolutely, and I know editors are understanding about it. But most of the money in freelance article writing is in journalism rather than personal essays…so to maximize your income, you’d want to be who you are. 😉

    The other approach to take in freelancing if you want to hide your name is to be a copywriter. No bylines there. Presto! Anonymity.

    • Nicole says:

      Excellent point about reporting!

    • J A says:

      I, too, am interested in submitting freelance essays or memoirs but want complete anonymity. I have a story to tell but in fear of public persicution and protecting my family, I want the privacy.
      It is a story about my personal life, with jaw dropping developments that no one could make up. I suppose they could, but I’m not that talented in fictional writing. And I have details that only I know, and well one other person. So my question is how difficult is it to work with the publisher on privacy matters such as this?

  • Pamela says:

    What if the pen name is actually your maiden name? And if I may ask..what are the ethical/credibility issues?

  • I don’t have an English name so I sort gave myself one and decided to use it as my pen name while my dad’s first became my surname.

  • Wendy says:

    “If you’re worried about harassment, talk to your network”?

    What does “network” have to do with people attacking you (through whatever medium available)? I’ve got a subject I need to get out (preferably a good, detailed memoir), but every time I’ve broached the subject (school speech assignments, on-line comment boards, chat with my own family), the best I can hope for is either total incomprehension that I can feel that way or attempts to convince me I shouldn’t feel that way. Quite commonly, I’ told I’m an idiot for feeling that way–a particular response from a “Personal Liberty” comment thread said, “The right to life trumps all others, girly.” (Did you note the site was Personal LIBERTY?)

    • maia says:

      Not the veer from the topic at hand, but I wanted to offer my support for the struggle you’re going through regarding you memoir. I’ve wanted to compose a work on the same topic. Unfortunately, the topic is inherently controversial, and my feelings are viewed as incomprehensible by most. Sadly, there is little out there in print, fiction or non, that address the issue from any angle, let alone from my unpopular view.

      The right to life does trump all others. Your right to YOUR life and your personal liberties.

      Best of luck! I hope you find success with this.

  • For years I wrote scientific articles with my “real name” (whatever that means), and also published a few short stories with a “pen name” because I didn’t want colleagues to stop taking me seriously as a scientist because I wrote fiction.
    I’ve since retired, and I’m now writing full time. The question of names resurfaced and has not been resolved. Wrote an article about that.

  • Virginia says:

    Using a pen name was a dilemma to me, so I reached out to other writers. I received mixed responses.

    Hence, I chose to use a pen name.

    I am using WordPress to post some of my writings. It is a good feeling to share with the public without having to-really tell them my birth name.

  • Mpesa says:

    Some people have really tough real names and could do with a pseudonym. But I think it’s easier to build credibility when writing under you real name. Plus some freelance websites, such as freelancer.com, now encourage freelancers to verify their identity by submitting a government-issued identity document…

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  • Kendra says:

    I have an unusual last name. If you Google my first and last name, you’ll see I’m the ONLY one in the country with this name. And (despite the fact that I use a PO Box for almost everything), if you Google my name, my home address (along with directions to my house) is easily found with one quick search.

    So my only other option is to legally change my name before I can freelance? Seriously?

  • Anne Katrine Cahill says:

    So I’m in a dilemma. I have a story I want to share, and boy what a story it is. However I for the obvious concerns with anonymity, I will use a pseudonym. I cannot tell this story and chance of it exposing me for fear it will ruin my life and possibly destroy my family. So in this case, I would hope that in my search for a publisher (or publication via freelance submission) that will cooperate with me using my own name exclusively. I suppose I could always withhold that info. Honestly, why would anyone using a pen name, writing a piece tell the prospective publisher their real name if they weren’t being completely honest? I guess I wouldn’t make make a good fraud. It takes too much effort to lie, when the truth in my life and story is so much more interesting. Any suggestions or suggestions on F/L submissions and or sharing my story with complete anonymity is greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance.

    /AKC

  • First of all, you need to be clear and honest with yourself about why you want to use a pen name. Is it about your employer? do you value anonymity? you want to protect your reputation in case your writing is not good enough? etc.
    It is important to assess that before choosing to write under a pen name, because it does come with its own challenges: building a reputation from scratch, not being able to share the work with your friends (, , etc.) protecting that identity, etc.
    I wrote a whole piece on the subject of using a pen name that explores the many implications a writer may face: On using a pen name to write ebooks () (On using a pen name to write ebooks

  • Angela says:

    Chicken Soup for the Soul allows contributors to submit
    their stories under a pseudonym, so why would it be an issue for freelancers. I use 3 pen names for 3 different writing niches – ecommerce, travel and food. None of
    the site owners have ever had any problem with it.

    Before I submitted one of the articles, I asked them if it was ok to use a pen name. The reply was ‘several of our writers already do – no problem’.

    I disagree with Carol Tice who said “if you want to hide your name is to be a copywriter. No bylines there. Presto! Anonymity. I hide my real name and I’m no copywriter, and I have bylines.

  • Richard Weir says:

    “What feels right” I think is the ultimate answer here. I would love to use my given name but that “brand” has already been taken by a very famous recording artist who has been around for 40+ years (thanks, parents)… so I adopted a pen name. But what works for me and my particular set of circumstances may not work for you. Also, consider: how you feel about a pen name might change over time. A lot of needless fretting is probably spent over feeling locked into a name. But you can change it. Other authors have. Go with what feels right for you.

  • Colin says:

    I already have an author name. I believe writers can have several author names to denote the genre of a novel for the reader. This has possibilities for future novels. The reason behind the author name was that I considered my own name uninteresting. This has perhaps been the right decision, but people can show disbelief when told that you have this author name which is a pseudonym. That the author is not named xxxxxxx. Readers can find disappointment when they actually get to meet the person who wrote the novel they enjoyed reading. You have to live with that additional hazard – they do not like your real name, either!

  • Eva says:

    An older post, I know, but I am seriously considering using a pen name – or a pen last name more specifically – because my legal name is seriously hard to spell and is crazy long. How do half-pen names hold up in the freelance world?

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