Dana's Dojo: So You Wanna Be a Pseudonym

Today in the Dojo: To ‘nym or not to ‘nym, and how to make it work.


Yes, I’m plucking the low-hanging fruit from the Pitch 2.0 tree, but this is actually a rather important topic. We’ve already established that a ‘nym’s not a problem, per se. Jason Black was kind enough to drop by and confirm my suspicion: that it’s about identity, not the name on your photo I.D. So far, so good.

Now, let’s explore the topic in further detail. Those of you who are veteran ‘nyms can probably skip lightly over this one and get on with the holiday traditions like trying to avoid stores and hiding from the more vexing relatives. Those of you who aren’t yet established ‘nyms and wondering whether and how you should be come so, stick around.

To ‘Nym or Not to ‘Nym

How do you know if you should choose a nom de plume? Doing it because that’s what all the cool writers do is a silly reason. There are others, less silly, or frivolous but fun. The following explores some possible scenarios, but is by no means an exhaustive list.

1. Is your real name teh awesome or teh suck? This, for me, was the defining question when I chose a ‘nym all those long years ago, before the advent of the intertoobz. My real name consists of a first name that got filched by a character who won’t give it back. My last name has led to a great many retail jokes. And I decided that whacking adoring fans over the head with a bloody great hardcover copy of my magnum opus does nothing for public relations. But there would inevitably be readers who’d make the obvious joke, and I would be required to apply the Hardcover of Loving Correction (h/t Jennifer Ouellette and her Mallet of Loving Correction™). So, my legal name had to go.

If you have a name like Dick Hardman or Ima Lipshitz, and you mumble it as incomprehensibly as possible when introducing yourself to people, and shudder when you envision it embossed beneath the title of your precious opus, then choosing a ‘nym may be right for you.

2. Would publication under your legal name cause unnecessary complications? Perhaps your workplace would prefer some plausible deniability. Maybe you want to keep your writing and the rest of your life in separate spheres (good luck with that). Perhaps there would even be danger in being known. Whatever your situation, if self-censorship or on-the-job discomfort or possible threats to life and limb would haunt you under your legal name, or you just want people not to be able to find you easily, choosing a ‘nym might be an excellent idea.

3. Are you already known by a ‘nym? Perhaps you got one of those shiny new internet handles back when everyone was reveling in the freedom of being whomever they damned well pleased, and now you’ve got a following of thousands who’d look at you blankly and say, “Excuse me, who?” upon hearing your real name. Even if you tell them what it is, they insist on calling you by your handle in all possible situations. And when they sing your praises to other people, they use your ‘nym. Congratulations! The choice is easy. You are a ‘nym. No use trying to change it now.

(That goes for your real name, too. If you’ve forged a reputation under it, think long and hard before you start afresh. You’d be throwing away a ready-made audience, causing yourself the effort of establishing a new one, and for what? Because you’re afraid they may giggle when they discover you, O Person of Some Authority on Some Subject or Other, are writing a book? Because you don’t want them to see your amateur stumblings? People are more flexible than you think. Be honest with them, and the vast majority of them will go along for the ride. You don’t have to hide.)

I’m sure you, my darlings, can think of a myriad of other situations in which you’d use a ‘nym rather than a legal name. Let’s move on to getting it right, then.


Becoming a ‘Nym

Right. So you’re currently some anonymous soul, and you’ve decided you’re going to choose your own identity. But you have no idea how to go about it. I know there’s at least one of you out there, because I talked to you at the Pitch 2.0 event.

1. Choose your ‘nym. I know, this sounds easy, but it’s not. I went through several before I settled on mine. Try on some names. Mix and match. Find something that fits, that seems the most you, and that you don’t mind hearing shouted in a crowded room. Preferably, it will be something people can remember and spell. You want readers to be able to find you. It should probably be somewhat distinctive and memorable, although that’s not an absolute requirement. A little touch of the unique is nice, but very hard to obtain without being obscure. Does it roll off the tongue? Can you say it like you’ve been saying it all your life? Can you develop a signature for it? And will you still love it in the morning? Consider all of those things, because once you’ve got it, you should stick with it.

Choosing something that looks like a real name is common, but in our internet age, odd handles aren’t so odd anymore. So I won’t tell you to stay away from weird, one-word names that don’t look like names at all. The most important thing is to come up with something that pleases you, and that, if the absolute best should happen, you can spend an entire afternoon signing without getting terribly cranky.

Also, do keep in mind that an odd name will possibly cause issues with real-name demanding sites like G+ and Facebook. Be prepared to become a veteran of the ‘nymwars if you decide to go for a non-Western name anyway, at least until that war is won.

2. Start using it. Introduce yourself with it. We’ll be talking later about building a platform, so I’ll just skim lightly over the particulars of that: blog, Facebook, G+, Twitter, and all that. But start forging your identity as this ‘nym. Get used to using it. Get people used to seeing it, and associating it with you.

3. Develop your identity. Let your ‘nym be you. Perhaps there’s a few details withheld for various reasons, but your ‘nym probably shouldn’t be a brand-new person. I’d advise against creating a whole new persona for it. Personas are a lot of work to maintain. And readers like genuine people. They usually need to sense there’s a real person behind the ‘nym. Decide which bits of you are public and which private, and keep the private ones out of your ‘nym, but don’t ever lie about who you are, or your degrees and qualifications and so forth. You’ll get caught out someday.

You can be as mysterious or as intimate as you’d like. Just be consistent. And did I mention, don’t lie?

4. Pictures or it didn’t happen. You may use an author photograph or not, depending on how determined you are to remain anonymous. If you really, seriously, want to keep people from finding out who you are, don’t use photos of yourself, but especially on your blog and Twitter and so forth, an iconic image is nice. Something people can attach to your ‘nym. It can be a cartoon or an animal or some other avatar, something funny or profound or just nice, but choose something that can stand in for you.

And that’s how you get started. This is just an introduction, Pseudonyms 101. Let me know if you have questions or concerns, and we can possibly discuss them in future posts.

Dana's Dojo: So You Wanna Be a Pseudonym

9 thoughts on “Dana's Dojo: So You Wanna Be a Pseudonym

  1. 3

    Maybe it’s how much time I’ve spent online, all the blogs I read and all the fanfiction I’ve sat through but I wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow if while perusing through books I came across one by SharinganKakashi24 or cLaymorefAngrlll or militantskeptic or Hudson_Valley_Realtors.

  2. 4

    I wrote under a ‘nym for a while because I felt uncomfortable writing under my own name. I think it might have been a teenage thing. (I was clearly a rebel, not using my own name. *snark*) I think, in a weird way, facebook helped me come to terms with using my own name online. I figure I’m not really anonymous anyway, so why not go for it? Better to be infamous for who you are, right?

  3. 5

    I like my first name, but no one can pronounce the damn thing if they see it written down first. (It’s actually quite easy to say, but the wacky Celtic spelling creatives massive cognitive dissonance.) And if I went by an initial or two (or three; there’s precedent), my last name still sounds like a soccer player’s. But I like my name in the end. Sigh. Decisions decisions.

  4. 6

    I’ve never cared for this nym. It was originally just a throw-away nym I made up so I could post one comment on Pharyngula. That was in 2009. But as you said:

    Let your ‘nym be you. Perhaps there’s a few details withheld for various reasons, but your ‘nym probably shouldn’t be a brand-new person. I’d advise against creating a whole new persona for it. Personas are a lot of work to maintain. And readers like genuine people. They usually need to sense there’s a real person behind the ‘nym.

    I’ve established an on-line persona using this nym. I’m recognized in at least one community as ‘Tis Himself (or just ‘Tis) and so I’m stuck with it for forever (or until I stop posting on certain blogs).

    Ars longa, vita herring. Or something like that.

  5. 7

    My name is long and unwieldy, and often doesn’t fit on the space provided on official forms and documents. I even sign my checks with a shortened form of my name.

    There’s some standardized State test forms floating around where I am ‘Christ’ because they only provided 6 spaces for first names. I think there’s a few where my last name got cut off as well.

  6. 8

    For whatever it’s worth, I though it was a cool nym, too.

    Of course, I ended up with a nym that I definitely don’t want to hear shouted across a room (particularly if it’s done in a frightened voice with some accompanying snarls), so what do I know?

  7. 9

    I really like my name. But I deal with correspondence for a Government department and too many people have my real name who are not happy about what I had to tell them. I also get threats at work, which is fine because that’s part of the job, but I don’t want those people to follow me into civilised internet spaces.

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