Why do writers use pseudonyms? Are they using a pen name to hide something?

Many writers don’t write under their own names. I had more pseudonymns than I can count when I was freelancing as a journalist, and as an author I’ve had four. Here’s some reasons why you might consider one:


o hENRY, pseudonyms, famouos authors

When William Sydney Porter was released from prison in 1901, his criminal past – he had been jailed for bank fraud – was an impediment to a career in literature (unlike today when it’s a fantastic advantage.) So he became O. Henry, a name taken, ironically, from one of his prison guards in Ohio Pen – Orrin Henry. Porter became one of the most popular short-story writers in America in the early part of the last century and sold millions. He carried  the secret of his imprisonment to his grave.


pseudonym, anonymous, famous authors

Anonymous by David Shankbone

When Newsweek columnist Joe Klein wrote Primary Colours, a no holds barred portrayal of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, he wrote it as “Anonymous”, aware he was breaching a journalistic code of ethics. When he was outed – and if you write anything as Anonymous, you will be, guaranteed – he made things worse by initially denying it. When the truth came out, he lost his job at CBS News- and the respect and trust of many of his colleagues. Newsweek kept him on though, even though he’d shown his true colors.


psuedonym, Sylvia Plath, famous authorsSylvia Plath apparently had a close and intimate relationship with her mother but that didn’t stop her having homicidal thoughts about her. “The Bell Jar”, published by ‘Victoria Lucas’, was the story of a brilliant but troubled woman called Esther Greenwood, a failed suicide whose needy and controlling mother was the cause of many of her problems. Much like her own mother, in fact. Unlike Greenwood, Plath successfully suicided soon after publication.

Patricia Highsmith is best known for “The Talented Mister Ripley” but less well known for “The Price of Salt” which she wrote as ‘Carol Morgan.’ She used a pen name because she was worried what her grandmother might think about a book that so graphically described a lesbian love affair. In short, she didn’t want granny to know she batted for the other team. It was forty years before she finally admitted authorship.


psuedonym, Fernando Pessoa, famous authors

Fernando Pessoa – one of them anyway

Fernando Pessoa is considered one of Portugal’s towering literary figures; or at least one of the top 80, because that’s how many different writing identities he had. They variously wrote poems, plays, essays and novels. Among the authors he channeled was a bisexual opium-smoking naval engineer, a hunchback dying of tuberculosis, and a suicidal baron. If he was alive today Amazon would have run out of sub categories just on one author.


Eric Blair described himself as “lower upper-middle-class” – which is like a Kennedy pseudonym, George Orwell, famous authorsdescribing themselves as blue collar Cape Cod. He attended Eton, England’s most prestigious private school, and as a child was forbidden to play with the plumber’s children because they were `common’. When he wrote “Down and Out in Paris and London,” he didn’t want to embarrass his lower upper-middle class family – or betray his privileged roots while railing against the injustices of poverty. He told his publisher that “if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.” The pseudonym? George Orwell.



It may be a bad idea now but it was a good idea once; for example, when Mary Ann Evans wrote a book called “Adam Bede” she didn’t want her work to be perceived as the work of just another romantic female novelist. She even preceded publication of her book by publishing an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ blasting contemporary female writing. She wrote it under her pseudonym – George Eliot.

The Bronte sisters first published as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because as Charlotte said:

pseudonym, famoous authors, JK Rowling

source: sjhill

“… I had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,”

But gender bias in publishing is not totally consigned to the past. Joanna Rowling’s publisher thought her Harry Potter series wouldn’t be as popular among boys if it was known to be penned by a woman. So JK used initials instead of her christian name. The “K” doesn’t stand for anything because she has no middle name. Perhaps she should have used MD Rowling – for Misunderstood Demographic.

Her Harry Potter books catapulted in popularity even after her gender was revealed. Sigh.


pseudonym, Jonathan Swift, famous authors

Isaac Bickerstaff – better know as Mr Gulliver’s Travels

In 1708  one “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” published his “Predictions for the Year 1708,” prophesying the death of a famous astrologist and fortune teller called Samuel Partridge. He followed this up with another article two months later – under a different pen name – claiming the prophesy had come true.

Partridge woke one night to find his fans crying outside his bedroom window. He was forced to make a public statement insisting he was alive after an undertaker arrived, an elegy was published, and a gravestone was prepared. No one believed he was not dead  until he was dead and then they didn’t believe that either.

The culprit? Jonathan Swift, later famous for Gulliver’s Travels.

So there you have it. You heard it first from Colin Falconer. Which incidentally is not my real name. It was the name of the prison guard at the mental facility where one of the poets I channel was incarcerated for impersonating a woman on Bill Clinton’s campaign staff.

And doesn’t he/she have a story to tell.

colin falconer, bestselling author, romance, adventure, romantic adventure, love story


Colin Falconer, romance, adventure, bestseller, historical fiction

Come meet me at the Falconer Club, for exclusive excerpts and the chance to win copies of my books. JUST CLICK THE PICTURE ABOVE!




  1. And there’s always,”Because you have a name no one can pronounce” such as mine. Sigh! I sometimes wonder if my books would have attracted more interest if I had used a pseudonym. What I want to know is, are Falconer and Bowles both pen names? 🙂 I remember Bowles from when you were writing for teens. – Sue Bursztynski ( my actual name, as this comment will come up as Raventracks.

  2. Ah. It didn’t come up as Raventracks!

  3. I was thoroughly entertained by this post. Thanks!

  4. Also ‘stalkers’. I know a number of writers with a heavy online presence who use a pseudonym because they are well aware of some of the crazies found on the internet. Such a pseudonym wouldn’t stop a hard-core hacker, I’m sure, but it does stop the garden variety loonies who think it’s Ok to, say, try and find you on the train you catch home from work.

    • Good point, Ciara. I was only stalked once, after I wrote a novel that was very autobiographical and that got a bit Twilight Zone for a time. But as a guy – who does not own a pet rabbit or have a mistress called Glenn Close – I’m not too worried about it. But I can see how some women writers may need to be wary.

  5. I had no idea William Sydney porter and o. Henry were one in the same. Favorite story: content of a dead mans pockets.

  6. That was so much fun to read! History and entertainment all in one. Plus, I feel smarter now. That’s always a good thing. 🙂

  7. You crack me up, Colin…or John…or Pete…or whatever your name is.

  8. I love this, especially the pieces about Swift and Pessoa. I must look up one of the latter’s books. The man would be a fitting subject for a novel himself.

  9. The whole thing about Jonathan Swift doesn’t surprise me one bit; he was always at the center of some uproar. I love the idea of pseudonyms. One of my favorite was Jean Plaidy and right now, that’s all I can remember, I know she wrote under several or one or two others and maybe wasn’t even a she. Gads! Have I really been alive that long? Yes, my calendar says “2013,” not “1983.” Oh, while I’m on this tack, I ran across my old copy of “March of Folly,” by Barbara Tuchman the other day. Wouldn’t she have had fun with Bush II?

  10. Reblogged this on Savvy Writers & e-Books online and commented:
    Fun to read! History and entertainment all in one. By Colin Falconer. http://colinfalconer.wordpress.com

  11. Now this is my kind of entertainment/post. I love to be slammed with a plethora of seemingly unrelated facts and then witness their seamless conjoining. Great post. Now I’ve got to get busy finding some disembodied spirits to channel. Maybe they’ll prompt some real writing for a change 😉

  12. Hey…can you ask that prison guard if Clinton ever did inhale? 😉 I think some choose a pseudonym because they think they have a boring – or ‘different’ – name…first, last, or both. I mean…my mom went to school with a girl whose last name was Wormnest (true story). I imagine if she ever chose to write, she might change hers. She also knew a guy whose first name was Marion (or Marian?). I can’t remember what his middle name was, but that’s what he went by. So those are probably good reasons, too. 🙂

    Fun info on the other authors.

  13. Orwell really was “lower upper-middle class”. Probably you have to be British to understand that 🙂

    • I don’t know if my old mum would agree with you there – she was as Cockney as they come, and anyone who went to Eton was strictly ‘posh’ in her book – that made them upper class. I can hear her now!

  14. One thing writers should do before publishing (either on their own or traditionally) is go to Amazon and type in their name or the proposed pseudonym to see if it’s already in use. In fact, if your name is dead common, on the order of John Williams or Mary Smith, you might want to use a pseudonym just so people can find your books. Also, some writers use different pseudonyms for writing in different genres because in the print world, bookstores tend to put all of an author’s books in the same section. If you write YA mysteries and torrid adult romance, this could be a bad thing.

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