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 harassment.
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 revealed herself 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 Dear Sugar.
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?