Pen Names and The Famous Writers Who Use Them

10 Apr 2019


If you have ever read a book and found yourself thinking that the style and way of writing seemed very familiar, it is possible that the book you are reading was actually written by your favorite author —only under a pen name.

A pen name, also known as a nom de plume or a pseudonym, is an assumed name used by an author, in place of their own name.

Some authors write exclusively under their pen name, while others write under both their actual name and their pen name (or multiple pen names, in some cases).

But, why do authors use pen names? And how do they come up with the pen names they use?

While the answer for that varies from author to author, we have come up with a list of 8 famous authors who have used pen names, and the reasons behind their decision to forgo their real names on their books.

Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens):

It is a well-known fact that Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. It is said that Clemens got the name “Mark Twain” from his former job as a riverboat captain. The term, “Mark Twain”, is a river term that means “two fathoms,” or 12 feet. The sounding of “Mark Twain” on a riverboat meant that it was safe to navigate the water. 

What is not so well known is the fact that Clemens also wrote under the names Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab.

It is said that Samuel Clemens chose to write under pen names as a way to have literary freedom.

It was also a way to protect his family from repercussions due to the content and opinions of the characters in his books.

Dr. Seuss (real name Theodor Seuss Geisel):

Theodor Seuss Geisel is famous worldwide for his children’s books, penned under the name “Dr. Seuss.”

Geisel first started using this pen name in college, after he was caught drinking by the Dean of the school, stripped of his position as editor of the Dartmouth college’s humor magazine, “Jack-o-Lantern,” and banned from writing for the magazine.

In order to trick the administration and continue writing for the magazine, Geisel adopted the name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, which he later shortened to Dr. Seuss.

Geisel was not actually a doctor of any sort, having dropped out of the PhD program at Oxford.

The “Dr.” in his pen name was in honor of his father, who had hoped that Geisel would someday get his PhD. The “Seuss” came from Geisel’s middle name, which was also his mother’s maiden name.

While not nearly as famous as his “Dr. Seuss” pen name, Geisel also famously wrote under the names Theo LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards) and Rosetta Stone.

George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair):

When author Eric Arthur Blair was ready to publish his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, he was concerned that his family would be embarrassed by the stories of their time in poverty.

In order to protect them, he decided to adopt a pen name.

He chose the name George Orwell to reflect his deep love of England.

George is the patron saint of England, and Orwell was the name of a river where he loved to go sailing.

Lemony Snicket (real name Daniel Handler):

It is likely that most people cannot identify any books written by Daniel Handler.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard of Lemony Snicket and his popular children’s series’ A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions.

It is said that Handler first adopted the pen name of Lemony Snicket when he was doing research for his first novel, Basic Eight. He needed to contact various right-wing organizations, but did not want them to have his real name. Thus, Lemony Snicket was born.

Stan Lee (real name Stanley Martin Lieber):

Debatably one of the most famous comic book writers in the world, Lieber originally made the decision to write under the name Stan Lee because he hoped to one day graduate to writing more serious literary work, and planned to save his real name for that.

Once it became apparent that he was destined to be known for his comic books, Lieber made the decision to legally change his name to Stan Lee.

Richard Bachman (real name Stephen King):

When King first started his writing career, it was a common belief in the publishing world that an author could only successfully release one book per year. In order to bypass this belief, King created the pseudonym “Richard Bachman,” so that he could release multiple books per year.

King ended up publishing seven novels under the name of Bachman, before the connection between his pen name and his real identity were discovered.

While King claims that he created his pen name in order to get away with releasing more books per year, it is said that he also wanted to see if “lightening could strike twice.”

He wondered if his writing talent alone could launch his Richard Bachman personality into as much fame as he had achieved under his own name.

Interestingly, though, the books he released under the name Richard Bachman did not gain success until it was publicly known that the books were King’s.

JK Rowling and Robert Galbraith (real name Joanne Rowling):

Now famous worldwide for her Harry Potter series, Rowling’s publishers were at first unsure if her target audience of pre-teen boys would accept stories about wizards that were written by a woman. For that reason, they encouraged her to use initials on the books instead of her first name.

Having no middle name, Rowling adopted the “K” from her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, and became known as J.K. Rowling.

What may surprise some, though, is that Rowling has been writing crime novels under yet another pen name: Robert Galbraith.

Rowling has said that she made the decision to write her crime novels under another pseudonym, so that she could freely write without having the pressure from being the author of the wildly successful Harry Potter books.

She liked the appeal of being able to create something completely different, and wanted her crime novels to stand (or fall) on their own merits.

Mary Westmacott (real name Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie):

Known as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie created 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections during her impressive writing career.

However, what is unknown to many is the fact that she also wrote six romance novels under a pen name, Mary Westmacott, which she managed to keep secret for 20 years.

It is said that Christie adopted her pen name, so that she could more easily switch genres from mystery and crime to romance.

Jennifer Rizzo 
Jennifer Rizzo, also known as "Rizzo," is a Denver-based writer with a passion for writing, genealogical research, travel, and languages. She studied Spanish at the University of Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico and also lived and studied in Ancona, Italy. She also holds a certification for International Tour Management through the International Guide Academy. Since joining The Writers For Hire, Jennifer has tackled a vast array of projects—from RPFs and SOPs to memoirs and company history books— and has done many in-depth genealogical research and family tree projects. She has also worked as Project Manager for various client projects, including family history books, websites, RFPs, blogs, autobiographies, and SOPs. She enjoys working closely with clients, and loves any opportunity that allows her to indulge her creative side.

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