Written by Emily Harstone June 20th, 2019

On Pen Names

I am writing this using a pen name. I write poetry, prose, and nonfiction, and only my prose is published under my legal name.

That said, there are plus and minuses to pen names. I don’t think they are for everyone, and after using the same one for almost a decade I wouldn’t chose another one lightly.

If it is simply a matter of not liking your own name, I would not choose to use a pen name.

There are lots of good reasons to have a pen name. I started writing using one in part because I was often submitting to the same literary journals I was reviewing at Authors Publish. I didn’t want those literary journals to have to take into consideration the fact that I was a reviewer while they were reading my submissions.

I also chose a pen name so that people who knew me as poet could look my poems up online without seeing hundreds of nonfiction articles.

But there were unexpected benefits to having a pen name. When people write me love letters or hate mail, I have the additional shield of a pen name.

There are downsides to it too. Lots of people really respect the work I’ve done under my pen name and it is entirely separate from my creative work. Many authors who write special features for Authors Publish use this platform as a way to find new readers for their creative writing. I can’t do that.

For me the benefits outweigh the cost.

Some of the other arguments for using a pen name include making it hard for people in your life to find your creative work (particularly if it is about them), or if you have someone whose been abusive in your past that you’d rather avoid.

But even if you decide to go with a pen name you should be careful about choosing one. A number of writers have gotten into trouble for writing under pen names that imply something that is not true about them. For example, the white author who chose a Chinese pen name for his poetry, or the male author who chose a female pen name and then submitted to literary journals that published women and non-binary authors only.

Your name should also be distinct. Google your pen name before committing to it, to make sure there aren’t other writers with it out there (this is actually unfortunately true about my given name).

Also, once you choose a pen name it is beneficial to stick with it, to minimize confusion and to establish your career.

Even after all this time I still have conflicted feelings about using a pen name, but ultimately I’m glad that I do use one.

Emily Harstone is the pen name of an author whose work has been published internationally by a number of respected journals. She is a professional submissions adviser and spends much of her time researching manuscript publishers. You can follow her on Facebook here.


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