Should a Christian Author Use a Pen Name?

Many aspiring Christian writers think about writing under a pen name, also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume. Is it a good thing to do?  That is an easy question to answer. It is almost always best to write under your own name. The reason is clear; you are who you are in Christ, so why pretend to be someone else?

Too harsh? Perhaps. If you decide you want to use a pen name, you should think through the process and understand the advantages and disadvantages.

Three questionable reasons for using a pen name

1. False humilty. Some Christians think they are obeying God by remaining anonymous. There is even a book called Embracing Obscurity by “Anonymous.” Some think they are submerging “self” with this tactic, but that doesn’t play well. Self-effacement is a work of the flesh, not a work of the Spirit. Jesus said (Luke 10:20) our names are written in heaven, so there is no spiritual reason we should remain anonymous on earth.

2. To hide your real identity. If you are writing something that is negative or controversial, you may be afraid to use your real name. In society today, many people hide behind screen names, so they feel free to say anything, no matter how untrue or hurtful it may be. If you think you must hide your real identity, you need to ask yourself why? Maybe you should not write what you have in mind if you must hide behind a pen name.

3. To make yourself into someone you are not. Just because you give yourself a pen name does not mean you can fake credentials. Some think they can give themselves doctorates or an impressive biography filled with great jobs and world travel. That is not ethical. The credentials of the “pen name person” should never exceed those you legitimately hold under your real name.

Legitimate reasons for using a pen name

1. To avoid confusion. I have a friend named Rebecca Wells, but she is impossible to find on the Internet. Why? There is a famous writer with that name, so she shows up on both Amazon and Google searches, not my friend. If your real name is Mary Smith or Jane Austen, you probably need a pen name. Sometimes people add an initial to differentiate themselves, so Mary Smith might become Mary F. Smith. Or, she might use her birth name to be distinctive, so her pen name might become Mary Flynn Smith. If your name is Jane Austen, you don’t want to be confused with that famous English author. In that case you might use your middle name and become J. Carol Austen.

2. Simplification. If you have a long name, or one that is hard to pronounce, you may want to shorten it. Family names are important to people, but authors change them to gain wider acceptance. If your name is Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, you might consider changing it to Joseph Conrad too. Notice famed writer Conrad did not completely abandon his name; he used a portion of it so he would stand out to a wider audience.

3. For legitimate privacy. C.S. Lewis published his 1961 book, A Grief Observed under the pseudonym of N.W. Clerk. It was about the illness and death of his wife, Joy Davidson. Lewis had already published dozens of books under his own name, so that was not the issue. He wanted to share what he learned about loss and grief through his ordeal, but he thought it would be better received if he retained his privacy.

How to Adopt a Pen Name

1. Make sure the name you pick is not in use by another author. Search on Amazon and Google and see what pops up. If it appears on Amazon, you may want to think of another name or name style to avoid confusion. If it appears on Google, that may be okay if the people you find are not authors. Never use the name of a well-known historical person or a present-day celebrity.

2. Once you adopt a pen name, use it consistently. That means it must appear on your books, in promotional material, in official documents that relate to your book (like ISBN or Copyright registration) and many other things. There is no point in having a pen name if everyone knows both your real name and your pen name. How can you sign book contracts and open bank accounts under a pen name? You can’t, unless you start something like a Limited Liability Company. If your pen name is Billy Bob Smith, you can get full legal recognition as Billy Bob Smith LLC. Your real identity can stay hidden pretty much forever that way.

3. Verify that the pen name you want to adopt is available as an Internet domain name. If you are branding yourself, this is an essential step. In the last analysis, a pen name is a form of branding and you want to make the most of it.

Use a pen name if you have have sound reasons to do so. Otherwise, use your own name. That is usually the best thing to do.

2 Responses

  1. Leah says:

    I have really been struggling with this one and am glad to have found this article. How about not wanting toxic, abusive family members to find you, because even online, they can cause problems? Is that a valid reason to? Sometimes psychological space seems necessary, even as Christians.

    • Donald L. Hughes says:

      You raise an interesting point. You are right that in some cases people need psychological space, even Christians, to express their creativity. Pen names should not be a mask to hide your real self, but it could provide anonymity that can help you find your real self.

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