5 Things to Consider Before Using a Pen Name for Your Memoir

If you have a story that needs to be told but are too afraid to use your real name, it can be impossible to find the right path for your book. In this blog, I am going to talk about five common concerns from memoirists who have raw, personal stories that could help others but who are worried about repercussions on using their name.

If you’ve had this question, I think about this namely in terms of the legal possibilities, legal ramifications, family and friend issues, and if you need to do a little more reflection before deciding to use a pen name.

Many authors come to me wanting to tell these personal stories of how they overcame trauma. But it can be scary to put it all out there with your name on it. People toss around the idea of publishing under a pen name, a pseudonym, instead of their actual name on the cover of the book. This is a hairier issue than it might appear.

Before I get into the five things, I want you to consider if you are planning to use a pen name, I am clearly stating that I am not a lawyer. I am a writer. I am a book coach and I own a publishing company that specializes in leadership books and memoirs. I’ve been in the trenches with many who wrote very personal books and will talk about insight from these experiences that I believe to be helpful to others.

Ask yourself about the legal ramifications.

First, I want you to ask yourself if you are trying to avoid getting sued. Maybe someone is worried because they’re planning to write a tell-all on a previous employer or business. One of my first clients had experience working in an office that was abusive to her. She was a Black woman. Her boss was a white man, and he would just berate her constantly. This was shortly after the Obama election and this boss would constantly talk down to her about supporting President Obama, in addition to other political conversations.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes gossiping. He would spread rumors he knew weren’t true about her. He made sexual advances toward her as well, but HR wasn’t helpful. What did this woman do? She lifted herself up and became an HR consultant so that she could help make sure no one else ever went through what she did. You can imagine that planning to tell a story like that is scary.

When we talked through this, she was concerned about getting sued for defamation for using real names or anything else that could be physically tracked back to her boss. The advice I always give, in this situation, is that you need to get legal counsel. If you need a lawyer that specializes in literary work, I can send you names of some amazing women, as there is precedent for lawsuits in cases like this. Even if you change the names of people you’re mentioning so you can use your real name on the cover, you can still get sued for that.

There was a famous story years ago. A man, who grew up in foster care, wrote a tell-all about his experience. Even though he changed the names of all parties involved, the writing and context was clear enough that others could track down real people. He was still able to be used for invasion of privacy because of this. If he used a pen name in this situation, it might be harder for others to figure out who is who, but not impossible. If you are going to make your memoir so obscured that no one can identify you, locations, institutions or other characters you’re interacting with, it is going to be difficult to get that book to speak your truth.

To be clear, you can be sued if you use a pseudonym. You can be sued if you change people’s names. Reach out to me or legal counsel who can consult with you and find the best solution if you want a pen name for this reason.

The statute of limitations is important.

Second, I want you to ask yourself if you are worried about illegal activities in your memoir. I think back to a client we worked with years ago under NDA. She worked for a Korean karaoke, a form of sex work. It’s an underground nightclub scene usually held in warehouses and frequently raided by police. This client, also a refugee, was proud to stand in her truth and her writing, but she was concerned about being arrested for writing about illegal decisions she made, even if it was years after the fact. Additionally, she was also concerned about her family finding out about a second life she kept hidden.

Again, while I’m not a lawyer, what I will say is that many types of crimes have a statute of limitations. You don’t want to write a memoir while you’re still in the middle of something. If the statute of limitations is up, there is nothing law enforcement could do. If you spend years reflecting on your life and now you want to write about it, that is ideal. But you do need to think about these issues and how you might bring them to a lawyer if they apply to you.

Think about how your loved ones might feel.

The third reason you might want to use a pen name for your memoir is that you worry about hurting people you care about. Deeply think about whether you want to publish work about those you care about. It’s possible these people could find out it was you, and that secret is hard to keep under wraps.

Rather, I propose you have actual conversations with those you are trying to avoid hurting with a pen name. This is hard advice to swallow. Let me tell you about one of our clients, a politician running for office, who wanted to write about those who she felt held her back. Within her memoir, she wrote about issues with funding, approval numbers and power structures demonstrating how to push people down politically. You aren’t going to tell this story without the possibility of burning a few bridges.

As we were in the final rounds of revision with this book, our client went through the manuscript and made lists of every single person she mentioned in a negative, positive, or neutral light. She took individual pages, sometimes single paragraphs, invited these people to a coffee date, on the phone, or over Zoom, and read aloud the passages they were mentioned in. She wanted to make sure everyone was familiar with the content of the book, and that it was accurate, before it dropped. This is key.

Stand in your own truth and power.

When writing a memoir, it’s important to reflect enough on our life to be able to present our experiences in a fair way that stays true to yourself but also reasonably true to those who observed you from the outside. Keep your own spin on those lessons, but think about how you portray others so that they either feel comfortable when the book comes out, or they know you’ve made every effort to tell the truth.

Our client discovered she didn’t need to hide her book or use a pen name. Most people agreed with her version of events. A few, a nervous lawyer, disagreed with how events regarding him were written and another group of people felt their portrayal was harsh. She debated on what truth was worth telling, about whether it was worth going forward at all. Ultimately, she decided to go forward with everything essentially as it was with her real name on it. The book was about standing in her own power, her truth, so it wouldn’t have worked any other way.

When thinking about using a pen name, think about why you might feel hesitant standing on a podium. Putting your name on something is a powerful thing, but it can also be scary. Some do need to use a pen name for safety reasons, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Tell your story unapologetically.

This brings me to point five. When considering a pen name, are you going to be able to give your books the legs it needs? Nonfiction, in particular, is almost always sold on the author’s credibility. We talk about that sometimes in terms of platform. I’ve got a video called Why Nonfiction Authors Need a Platform, and it will tell you everything you need to know about your platform.

It’s important that you, a flesh and blood human being, stands to promote your book. I’m talking about book signings and book talks. You’ll have people want to connect with you because of your story. If you aren’t available, it’ll be hard to schedule promotions or any type of public speaking. Likewise, it will be difficult for others to see you standing in your truth telling your story unapologetically. Your memoir is your life, how you survived, and how you’re going to help others get through theirs.

To me, there is no right or wrong way to find paths into the light. Only you can answer that question, and I support what you decide and am here for you. Keep in mind these five issues: the legal issues of being sued, statute of limitations for illegal activity, loved ones being hurt, standing in your truth and power, and your book’s life beyond publication.

If you’re ready to get your story into world, but are unsure about budgeting, timeline, or support, I get it. Every author is unique; every book is different.  I am on a mission to make sure that everyone has access to the support and tools they need to tell their story well. If you would like to talk through issues or hear how we’ve helped others in the past, I hope you reach out. In the meantime, take the book strategy quiz to receive hands-on guidance for writing your book from start to finish and how to ensure it will make change in people’s lives. I can’t wait to hear your story.

Happy writing!

Share This Post

Picture of Amanda Edgar

Amanda Edgar

Dr. Amanda Nell Edgar is an award-winning author, ghostwriter, and book coach and the founder of Page & Podium Press. Co-author of the forthcoming Summer of 2020: George Floyd and the Resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Amanda has authored two nationally award-winning books and ghostwritten many more.

Related Posts

How to Know When to Join the Memoir Method Program?

If you’ve been part of the Page & Podium community for a while, chances are you’ve heard me discuss the transformative power of the Memoir Method. It’s more than just a program; it’s a supportive journey designed to empower women

You Deserve to Write Your Book with Denise Marsh

This week’s post features an interview with Denise Marsh, author of Do It For Your SELFIE! A Guide to Loving Yourself, Redesigning Your Life, and Getting Aligned from Within. Denise is an acclaimed author and transformational mindset guide, empowering women

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get book-related tips, tricks, and mindset shifts delivered straight to your inbox.

By continuing to browse this website, you agree to our use of cookies to collect website visit statistics.