how do I ask my new job to let me use a pseudonym?

A reader writes:

I got hired for a freelance writing job, and I don’t want my real name on the articles, which will be published online. How do I go about asking the job for permission to use a pseudonym?

My reasons are: 1) I am estranged from my family for reasons of safety and emotional health, and I do not want to be virtually findable. And 2) I adjunct teach college classes, and I don’t want my students googling me (which they do) and seeing me associated with this work. And I suppose, 3) I need the money, so I took the job. I don’t care about the content at all and don’t really want to be professionally associated with it.

Can I just say: “I’d rather not use my real name; is it alright if I choose a pseudonym?” What if they push back? I fear that it’s weird to tell them those reasons. Also– do I then forfeit the right to put this work on a resume? How do pseudonyms work for that? And perhaps most importantly, how does one choose a pseudonym?!

Asking to work under a pseudonym in any other kind of job would probably go over oddly, but with writing work, it’s a much easier sell since writers have a long history of writing under pen names. So I’d start by simply saying, “I prefer to write under the name Falcon Plufferton (or whatever name you pick). Will that be okay to do?”

It’s likely that you’ll be asked why, so you’ll want to be prepared to answer that. You could simply say, “It’s my pen name and the name I’m building a writing portfolio under.” Or, you could also say, “I’ve had a safety issue in the past that’s still necessitating me not being findable online.”

All that said, though, if you don’t want to go through the pseudonym rigamarole, an alternative would be to use your middle name instead — something that might be easier to explain to your employer, since it’s so common: “Oh, I actually use my middle name, Fergus, when I write professionally.”

Whichever path you choose — middle name or pseudonym — you definitely don’t lose the ability to put the work on your resume. You can always explain that you used a pen name, which presumably this current employer would verify. That’s another argument in favor of using your middle name though, if it’s an acceptable option — it potentially makes this part of things a little easier. (Although if you don’t want to be professionally associated with the work, this might be a non-issue.)

As for how to choose a pseudonym … I think you basically go with something you like the sound of, and that accomplishes what you want it to accomplish (such as being generic enough not to stand out, or sounding folksy, or being memorable, or being available to purchase as a domain name, or whatever fits in well with your particular writing context). But if you don’t plan to make this your permanent pen name (and it sounds like you don’t), the stakes aren’t particularly high and you might as well just go with something you like the sound of — and won’t mind being associated with if you decide in the future that you do want to use this writing as a work sample.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      My pseudonym is Thursdays Geek, or perhaps it’s just my alternate personality. It’s certainly more findable online than my real name, since there are about 39,200 of it in my state alone. I probably share a name with several regular posters here.

  1. Livin' in a Box

    This is so normal, OP. Your client won’t push back. Just say that your pen name is I.P. Nightly (or whatever) and that’s what they’ll use.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      It’s I.P. **FREELEY**. Not nightly, or daily. Well, that was the Bermudian version my Bermudian aunt told me.

  2. Seal

    Many, many well-known writers have done this over the years. For example, Stephen King occasionally used the nom de plume Richard Bachman in his early years. He later published the books he wrote under his pen name in an anthology under his real name. So pick a fun pen name and go for it.

  3. LizNYC

    If you can use a maiden name + middle name, then that might be an option. My friend who’s a journalist got married and still uses her maiden name professionally, since that’s the byline she’s known by. I wouldn’t be too worried about them pushing back, especially if you say you’re building a portfolio under “Professional Name.” If you do get pushback, you can mention that it’s also a safety concern, but I’d be surprised if you do. This is really common.

    1. Rachel

      The problem is that OP is hiding from family. Family will know her middle and maiden names. Having had a mother with a cluster B personality disorder, I’ve got some experience with online stalking. Using different parts of names her family knows will not keep her safe.

      1. aka The OP

        Thanks, Rachel, and I’m sorry you’ve shared a similar experience. Yeah, a name not associated at all is probably preferable.

  4. Elizabeth the Ginger

    Since it sounds like you’re not worried about building a “brand” under this name, you could also ask to be published just under your first initial and last name. If you have even a moderately common last name, that shouldn’t make you very findable online.

    1. Meg Murry

      Or again, if moderately common, first 2 initials and last name. That way also if their system can’t handle you paying you under one name while publishing your articles under another, you won’t have a problem with checks or tax forms with a totally different pseudonym on them. It also might make the resume issue easier – a resume that said “published under A.B. Lastname” would be more logical than one that said “published under Falcon Plufferton”

      1. Mouse of Evil

        This is exactly what I did when I wrote for a content mill (but it was actually a fairly high-quality content mill). If anyone thinks to look for me by initials and last name, they might find those articles, but there’s no way they could really be sure it was me. In any event, I go by firstname maidenname lastname, so my initials (with my middle initial) aren’t even the same as the name I go by in real life.

        FWIW, the content mill I wrote for had no problem with pseudonyms, and their payment system could handle it. I just couldn’t come up with one I wanted to build a portfolio under, so I figured it would be easier in case I ever wanted to use that writing as a sample.

  5. Joey

    I’ve never quite understood why you wouldn’t want your real name on your work. Maybe I’m saying that because I don’t understand why anyone other than celebrities or people concerned for their safety using fake names.

    For example I would probably freak out if Alison Green was a pen name.

    1. hayling

      I think the OP gave some perfectly good reasons in their post.

      Also think about why you don’t use your full name on this site.

      1. Tinker

        That, and if you’re not in “people concerned for their safety” category yet then being a visibly female writer, particularly on the Internet, isn’t a bad way to start. There are some folks out there who are not right in the head.

        1. L McD

          Yep. It’s kind of wryly funny (in that not-funny-at-all way) when my male colleagues use feminine-sounding pen names, as is the convention for my genre, and suddenly start dealing with online harassment for the first time. “Oh god, is this what it’s like all the time???” Yes, yes it is.

    2. Squirrel!

      Look up all the writing Benjamin Franklin did under pen names, or the authors of The Federalist Papers. Sometimes it’s a way to make a legitimate point without having any of the “baggage” associated with your name influencing people one way or the other.

        1. Sayhellokitty

          Anne Rice writes erotica under a pen name. Sometimes established authors send stuff to their agents under a pen name just to see what happens. And sometimes they do it to brand their work. Who’s going to read a romance by Stephen King? When I list work I’ve done under a pen name (which I do because my name is not memorable, not easy to pronounce, and easy to mistype or misspell), I list it as: Sunny Deelite (writing as Jill Steppenwolf).

          1. Phyllis

            This is what puzzles me. If a famous author is going to use a pen name, why do they say Jane Smith writing as Ann Jones. If they don’t want to have people influenced by the famous name, why put it on there at all? Two examples I can think of: Nora Roberts writes a series under J.D. Robb. Victoria Holt (anybody remember her?) wrote under the name Phillipia Carr.

            This is not the issue mentioned I realize, but still odd. BTW, speaking of men using a female pen name, I remember a romance writer (who’s name I can’t remember now) was “outed” as being male, and there was such an uproar!!!

    3. fluffy

      Several women academics started to use pen names for fiction because they were afraid their academic reputations would be harmed if they were associated with “frivolous” work.

      Some authors use different names for different styles of work. Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels, and Barbara Mertz–the firsxt writes mysteries, the second is more associated with romances or ghost stories, the third is an Egyptologist. And when they have dinner, there’s just one place to set.

    4. Rowan

      My real name is very googleable. If I were doing any kind of professional writing, I wouldn’t want my personal writing or blogging associated with it.

    5. De Minimis

      I have a similar situation, we have some dirtbag family members that we don’t want knowing where we live. I decided to delete my LinkedIn account because of it.

    6. aebhel

      Some people don’t want to be professionally associated with certain work (I know people who write erotica for side money, and they don’t use their real names for it because they don’t particularly want it to show up if their bosses Google them). Some people have stalker exes or intrusive family members. Some women will take a male or gender-neutral name in order to avoid harassment–which does happen, even to relatively unknown female writers. Some people just like making up pen-names. A lot of professional writers use pen names–sometimes even people who also publish under their real name. Stephen King has written novels as Richard Bachman, J.K. Rowling has written novels as Robert Galbraith, Seanan McGuire has written novels as Mira Grant, and that’s just a few off the top of my head.

      1. Oryx

        I chose my erotica and/or romance novel pen name 15 years ago in high-school, so when I eventually get around to writing those books I’ll be all set, LOL

      2. Felicia

        And JK Rowling originally went with JK, which is a pen name itself, the K wasn’t even her real initial, rather than Joanne because her publisher didn’t think boys would buy books written by a woman.

    7. Oryx

      There are lots of reasons, besides the ones the OP listed. I’ve published under a pseudonym and have a specific pen name I use for certain works online that I don’t want professionally associated with me. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by the work but I also have a more serious writing career and am building a portfolio under my real name and these other works don’t fit into that portfolio for a variety of reasons so I still want to write and publish but not have them traced back to me.

      Pen names also allow writers to branch out from their usual style without alienating audiences and perhaps gaining new ones not aware of the connection (Nora Roberts =Romance. JD Robb=Sci-Fi/Crime). Many, many well-known writers do it on a regular basis.

    8. AcademicAnon

      I worked email CSR at a place that sold stuff online, and policy there was your full name went in the email. There were several instances were people actually looked up where the CSR person lived and threatened to come to their house/apartment and do something. And this was for an amount most people wouldn’t return an item to a store for.

    9. Martin

      Look up SEO. That work takes content creators. It is generating web content for companies and I imagine it is the exact work that OP is talking about doing. There are totally legit reasons for her to want to use a different name to spin content for link bait.

        1. hayling

          Oh ick yeah if you have a legit career I understand why you don’t want your name associated with that content farm stuff.

    10. FRRibs

      In the day and age of google search, would you really want your kids, employers, etc, to find out you write erotica novels?

    11. KerryOwl

      I know of one more reason: there may be two or six or twelve other published authors with the same name. A unique name will be less of a headache and more marketable.

  6. Relosa

    JK Rowling doesn’t even have a middle name, and her pseudonym are initials because publishers thought the books wouldn’t sell if it was evident they were written by a woman (seriously). But at the same time, JK Rowling is a seriously cool pseudonym, IMO. That could be an alternative for you.

    Then again, I feel you on the real-name thing – I could get away with my middle name but my last name is too uncommon. If people came across it they would know who I was … same thing if I did a first-middle name pseudonym. My legal name combo is pretty much the only one that I’ve found in the US, and I’m related to just about every other person in the country with my surname. So I feel ya!

    1. Squirrel!

      JK Rowling doesn’t even have a middle name, and her pseudonym are initials because publishers thought the books wouldn’t sell if it was evident they were written by a woman (seriously).

      It is a serious concern because people (both men and women) still don’t take women seriously in certain roles, or judge them harsher, or are less likely to give them a chance, etc. There’s no need to pretend it was all the publisher’s fault for that line of reasoning.

      1. Mister Pickle

        On the other hand, in some professions it’s “different”. Without going into details, some years ago I gained a (very) minor amount of celebrity in my field under the name “Jessica”. I love the Internet!

      1. De Minimis

        Annie Proulx started out writing for magazines like Field and Stream, they insisted she use “E.A. Proulx” as a byline for similar reasons.

      2. AcademicAnon

        A lot of writers used psuedonyms for different genres or even subsets within a genre because publishers don’t think people will buy books if they associate the name with something else.

        And I think there’s a post someone on Nora Roberts website they says that’s basically why she did that for the JD Robb books.

      3. aka The OP

        I think this is also so that authors who are high-volume book-factories don’t compete against themselves (by having books out simultaneously), no?

  7. Helka

    Considering the kinds of crazy that some people who put themselves out there on the Internet can find coming home to roost, and considering that you already have safety concerns about being findable online, I think you’ve got a strong argument, OP. I should think that any reasonable company would be comfortable with you saying that due to personal safety concerns, you would prefer to publish online under the name of [insert name here].

    And it’s quite common to cite other names used when you’re putting your writing in a portfolio, resume, or CV, and that’s much more secure than listing your real name on everything you post online. You see it a lot with lists of published works by an author.

    “Books by Tony Stark
    Nuclear Power for Dummies
    Mechanical Tinkering When Money Is No Object
    I Am… (as Iron Man)”

    Things like that.

    1. fposte

      I had actually heard street name for that one. If you go for your formula, I get the almost-too-perfect stripper name of Candy Barr.

  8. Chinook

    Just remember that the name you choose now may follow you for the rest of your life, so choosing something as a joke may backfire. Just ask the Bare Naked Ladies (who are a fully clothed, all male band who were banned briefly in Toronto in the 90’s because peole thought they were strippers).

    1. JMegan

      Well, it was only one person who thought they were strippers. :) But that one person was the mayor, so she did have a certain amount of influence in the matter!

  9. Diane

    Your writing might be uncredited, depending on the publication. Newsletters and websites, for example, are often uncredited.

    1. aka The OP

      I’d be ok with that! All the other articles on the site have author bylines (plus contact info on some), so I’m thinking that’s how this company does things. It’s weird, because they have a somewhat specific format the articles need to be in, yet they do seem to credit them individually.

  10. MK

    OP, reasons 2 and 3 come across as if you are ashamed and/or dismissive of this work, which, judging from the rest of your letter, is not completely untrue. So, I don’t think it’s a good idea to say them to the perspective employer. But the first reason is perfectly valid; and most people these days are familiar with and understanding of “stalker” situations. You could also get away with something like “I use this pen name for my non-academic writing”, provided you haven’t actually published such work under your real name. I think pen names are common enough for it not to be a big deal, unless your academic status/reputation/credetials is one of the reasons this employer decided to hire you.

  11. De Minimis

    I barely come up on the first page anymore if you Google my name….there’s some model with the same name, and a couple of other guys on Facebook. My name isn’t that common, but apparently it’s not that uncommon either.

    1. Lily in NYC

      There is only one other person in the US with my name, and she is all over google as a crazy rag doll collector. I hate everything about dolls; they scare me. I always wonder if any potential love interests have googled my name and got creeped out and thought it was me.

      1. Al Lo

        I’m the only one on the internet. If you Google my name, after the first 2 pages of my own content, and the second 2 pages of other people posting about me, you’ll start to see things like genealogy sites listing “Smith, Al; Lo, Sally”, which is the next most common way to see my combination of names.

        I have a rather uncommon first name and a reasonably common last name, but the combination is unique, apparently. There was another one of my maiden name online, so we shared the first page of results, but most of my content and mentions have migrated to my married name.

        1. Judy

          I share a first and last name with a realtor, so I barely show up anywhere in google until you get more specific.

          1. De Minimis

            There’s also a lawyer floating around out there with the same name too….I don’t mind if I pop up here and there, since there are enough other people with the same name where I can say, “Oh, that must be someone else” if someone runs into some of the stuff I used to write online during the 90s….

          2. pseudonymous writer

            This is actually why I changed my name when I married: I shared both first and last name with a well-known film actress and so could not be found on Google. But I was building a writing portfolio and working on a career as a freelancer and *needed* to be found. So I was pretty happy to have a new last name opportunity pop up exactly when I needed it. ;)

        2. AcademicAnon

          I don’t think there is anyone in the world with my name combination (alternate spellings of both first and middle names) and my department website has my name on it so I’m very careful about giving out information anyone on the internet.

      2. Jillociraptor

        There’s someone with my same first name, and my last name missing the last letter. She’s an academic who writes on a topic that I was once very interested in. I disagreed a lot with her interpretation of her findings. Truly a missed opportunity that I bailed on my own academic career. Can you imagine the chaos. “Stark 2005, but cf Star 2010”

        It still bums me out that google tries to correct me when I search for myself. :(

  12. Gwen

    I don’t expect they’ll find it strange, it’s pretty common for people to write under different names in various circumstances for a number of reasons. I’ve written some things of a (koff) adult nature, and when I submit I just include “Gwen Lastname (writing as Fancy McPseudonym).” IME, they really just need your legal name for tax purposes.

  13. Kelly L.

    The only way I can see this being a concern is if your persona or writing is already well known somewhere and the new job asked you on the basis of that persona or writing, if that makes any sense. So if somebody hired Wil Wheaton to write for their blog, and he said “Sure, but I want you to call me Joe Smith,” I could see them having an issue, because what they wanted was Wil Wheaton writing for their blog. But if you’re not trading on your name cachet, which it doesn’t sound like you are, I don’t think there would be any trouble.

    1. Mister Pickle

      This. Hopefully it won’t be an issue. If it is, you need to decide between a job and personal safety. Personally I’d go with the latter.

  14. Curious

    Is it just me, or is anyone else now burning with curiosity as to what the OP will be writing about now? My imagination is taking me into some very interesting places on this!

  15. Maxwell Edison

    What with the advent of indie publishing, more and more people are using pen names for a variety of reasons.

    I have three books out now, another due in November, all under my real name. I don’t particularly like my real name – it’s too cutesy and sing-song – but the last name is memorable and many times I’ve been at the bookstore, stumped because I couldn’t remember an author’s last name.

    I plan on using a pen name for a future project because it’s a significantly different genre than my other works (current works are contemporary, suspense, and mystery – the future project will be a cute romance). I don’t want to dilute my brand. But there will be enough clues in the choice of pseudonym and in the setting of the romance so that a constant reader could deduce that it’s me, and I’m fine with that.

  16. Name (Required)

    My concern would be one of the final editors forgetting to put the correct byline. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back.

    1. aka The OP

      YES I KNOW– this exact worry makes me anxious. I didn’t want to look like a crazy person forbidding them emphatically to put my name on anything. But…I don’t want my name on anything.

      1. Lamb

        Because of this, I think you should emphasize the safety aspect. It’s not that you’re fussy or ashamed; it’s that there’s a specific danger. If you wanted to you could even express a concern of the dangerous party coming to/contacting the business if your name were published.

    1. aka The OP

      YES!

      When I start thinking of random combinations, for some reason EVERYTHING sounds transparently fake to me. It’s hard to get the right balance between too generic and too crazy. Ah, the art of deceit. :)

  17. Nanc

    Have you confirmed it will definitely be published under your name/pseudonym? I work for an agency that writes for Fortune 100 C-Suite execs. We write the stuff but it’s published under their name. These companies also use freelancers and again, authorship goes to a company exec. If that’s the case here–no worries.

    1. aka The OP

      Hi! All the other articles on the site have the authors’ bylines, so I guess I assumed mine would, too. They also show the “google plus” icons next to the authors’ names– that’s what really started my slight panic about all of this.

      1. hayling

        Create a separate Gmail address and G+ profile with your pseudonym. Use a picture of your pet or something random for your profile picture. Or maybe you could get someone to draw a cartoon of you like Alison has (although hers is obviously done for style and not for anonymity).

        1. Judy

          There are lots of avatar creators out there. We made one for my son, who originally wanted to put his picture on his profile on one of the websites he is on. He’s pretty happy with a cartoon him.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      There’s a term for that, Nanc. It’s called “ghostwriting”. It’s rather common.

  18. pseudonymous writer

    I know a ton of writers who publish under nicknames, middle names, or pseudonyms. Particularly the women (my focus is in technology, internet, and video games), who often have legitimate safety concerns.

    As long as you’re consistent with it and it’s not ridiculous, I’ve not yet met an editor who would really strongly object.

  19. Marvin

    Don’t know if anyone has hit on this OP, but if you are talking about spinning content for an SEO company, you can probably voice your desire to do so pretty freely with no push back. I interviewed once for a spot at one of these businesses and they even said in the interview that many of the people putting out content were writing under pseudonyms at the company. Though I am sure many of these firms are different, thought it might help to know that it is pretty common in that field of content creation.

    1. aka The OP

      Hi Marvin (if that’s your real name). Thank you; yes, it’s basically a content-mill-type gig . They publish with bylines, but maybe they’re all fake (?!). At least some of the writers’ names have google plus icons next to them, though. But based on others’ comments, it seems like this should be ok to pick a random pen name.

      1. AB Normal

        It’s common for writers to create G+ pages for their pseudonyms too, so I wouldn’t count that as an indication that other writers aren’t also using one!

  20. Ani

    Virtually all my female friends still in journalism go by their unmarried names in their bylines to this day, sometimes decades after marriage and being known by their married name everywhere else.

    As stated above, there is a common format for fiction writers to submit work under both their real name with their pseudonym attached. I’ve also heard of writers avoiding all of the above by registering a business and using a Doing Business As name on everything.

    1. MattE

      However, be aware that a DBA (or FBN, Fictitious Business Name) are public record, which may make you searchable.

  21. Susan

    My roommate used to do this because journalists usually don’t get paid well, so freelancing can be a nice way to supplement your full-time journo gig. However, some employers can get kind of weird about you writing for other publications in the area. I was under the impression people did this all the time because in the area I lived in, I knew a half a dozen people who were. Tbh, I think there was a non-compete clause in place? Maybe that’s a shady middle ground, but my point is pseudonyms are so ubiquitous in journalism, I don’t foresee any problem.

    There are reasons other than what I described. Some people want their name to kind of go along with their “brand” as a writer, especially in humor writing/arts&entertainment. I really don’t think magazines think twice about why you want another name.

  22. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    Way-yyyy-yyy back when (1970s) I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a computer analyst, or a newspaper sportswriter. I chose the former, but….

    My computer employer had an unwritten “no moonlighting” policy. So I used a pseudonym a few times. It was not one like “Billy Cowboy” or “Sammy Snickersbar”… it was a legitimate sounding one.

    Then again, in the early 90s – I once interviewed a guy who changed names every time he changed jobs. The guy had a strange name – obviously designed to draw unusual attention to himself.

    He had been out of work a few months – laid off from another shop. Not a big deal, I just ended some downtime, a mutual chuckle, and more seriously = “we don’t hold that against you.” His departure from the other place was amicable – the company was barely hanging on so he understood his layoff. “Can I call them for a reference?”

    “OH, yes, by all means! But over there I was known as (another name).” OK….. how about the employer before that? “Sure, that was a set contract job. But my name there was (aNOTHER name)”….

    And this wasn’t “Jaymz” versus “James”. Name #2 was an abbreviation and nickname on name #1. Name #3 (when he interviewed with me) was a weird pseudonym. But that was a strange thing in Generation X.

    1. Canadamber

      That sounds like it would be such a huge hassle (for him)! Legally changing names, or just the one he goes by? You’d have to change driver’s license, credit cards, all that stuff.

  23. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    I had no idea but we were going to have to take care of that if we did offer him a job (I don’t think we did) — because you must show proof positive (in the U.S.) that you’re legally authorized to work on your first day. Birth certificate, green card, US Passport.

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