Pen Names, Pseudonyms, Nom De Plumes, aka DBAs

News this week is that China is forcing its writers to reveal their true identities, despite the fact that writing under a pen name has been a longstanding Chinese tradition. It’s said to be a part of the Chinese government's attempt to control what happens online.

Some may think that outlawing pen names isn’t that big of a deal; they’d be wrong.
Charlotte Bronte and her sisters published under pen names using the surname Bell; Charlotte's nom de plume  was Currer Bell.  

Pen Names Give You Power   

Pen names are powerful: they allow writers a level of creative freedom that only anonymity provides. Aside from political freedom, there are several reasons that writers choose to publish under a nom de plume.  For instance:

  • Pseudonyms can be important for professionals (like lawyers) who may not want clients to know that they write steamy romance novels or Louis L’Amour-type westerns. 
  • Also, pen names allow writers established in one field or genre to publish in another area without fear of losing readership. 
  • For prolific authors, using pen names frees them from concern that publishing too many books in one year may dilute their market if they were to publish all under a single name. 

There are lots of reasons to use a pseudonym if you are a writer and pen names are widely used by writers today. How widely used? As for how popular pen names are, I leave it to you to surf the web for all the lists of “famous pen names” both past and present - like the 2013 list that Time Magazine provides in its article, “Famous Authors with Secret Pseudonyms.” 

Writing as a Business

Thing is, when you write under a pen name and you publish that work online with hopes of making a buck or two from it, then you’re going into the writing business. At this point, it’s not just romantic to use a pen name, it’s business. 

Which means you might want to consider filing your pseudonym down at the courthouse as a “DBA” (doing business as). Why?

First, filing your pen name as a DBA provides legal notice to the public that you are using another name to do business which may be important to you in the future for various reasons. It proves that the pen name really is you if you ever need to establish that ownership.

Second, it may help to block someone else trying to use that same pen name - if not globally, then possibly within your county or state. It’s a legal argument that isn’t as strong as copyright law but it’s better than going forward and not having this backup.

After all, establishing your DBA isn’t creating a business entity. It’s just providing legal public notice that you are using a fake name to do business.

Setting Up Your Nom de Plume as a DBA 

Getting a DBA set up is pretty cheap and easy. It’s a service provided in Texas by your local county clerk. Just look up the details online (like these set of instructions for Bexar County or Travis County) or give your County Clerk’s Office a call.

One important caveat: if you are serious enough about your writing business to take the time to register a legal notice of your pen name as a DBA in your public county records, and you’re pretty darn sure that you’re going to be making more than pocket change from your sales, then you may want to consider creating a business entity for yourself.  Writers can register copyright under a corporate name just as they can under their personal legal name.

That’s a decision that may need the help of a lawyer licensed in your state — and you may want to run it past your accountant, too.

Pen Name Fun

Finally, here's a couple of fun links for you, Dear Reader, if you are considering a pen name or are just curious about nom de plumes:

Choose your new author alias here using the online Pen Name Generator.
Go here to take the Oxford Dictionary's Pen Names Quiz.


Write About What You Know -- It's Good Advice, Especially for Lawyers Writing Blog Posts

Whether or not Mark Twain advised us to "write what you know" is debatable, but it's considered good advice by many and you've probably heard the quote and considered its lesson.  (I first heard it as advice given to me by poet Naomi Shihab Nye in an early writing class.)

Those who disagree argue that it's exactly what writers shouldn't do -- instead, they should use their imaginations and creativity to write about what they don't know.  They've got a point.  Maybe it is a bit confining for the fiction writer: how could we have Star Trek or Narnia if writers were kept to writing about only the things of which they know?  However, it is particularly wise counsel when the writer is an attorney who is publishing content online for his or her peers, clients, and potential clients to read and consider.

"Write what you know" has been attributed to Mark Twain.

The Temptation to Write About The Unknown in Law Blogs

Law firms who have blogs for legal marketing purposes are always concerned with how their blawg is going to help the firm make rain.  Some track their analytics to see how many times a particular post link has been clicked; others monitor how often the blog has spurred someone to call the firm for more information or maybe even to set up an appointment.

ROI (return on investment) is important to judge.  True enough.

Thing is, if your blog is working for you as a marketing tool then there's always the temptation to boost what you are doing to get more traffic or more potential clients.  To expand your firm's practice or practice areas using the blog.

Conversely, if the law firm's marketing efforts aren't working and business is stagnant, then the firm may be considering new practice areas as a way to boost business.  Writing blog posts discussing that new area of the law may be one of the first toes they put in the water as they segue the practice .  

There's also the reality that after awhile, the blogger runs dry on things to discuss and is searching for ideas and themes for new blog posts.  Maybe new practice area issues or blog themes will be easier to write.

My suggestion:  please don't decide to write posts discussing a new and untried practice area.  It's one thing for a savvy personal injury lawyer, for instance, to decide to focus efforts on a new type of PI theme, like delving into the product liability area.   It's another thing for that personal injury lawyer to decide to market in criminal law just because he (or she) thinks that criminal trials would be exciting, different, fun, or profitable.

Here's why.

Write About What You (or Your Law Firm) Knows

Most blogs aren't taken as seriously as more traditional publications, like your Bar Journal monthly magazine, or even blogs like HuffPo.  Your reader is going to be taking your post seriously, however.  And so will your State Bar should they decide to review your stuff.

It's just smart to write about the practice areas you know and within which you have experience.  If you are an injury lawyer or law firm who would like to venture into criminal law, great!  Go get that CLE and learn your criminal rules of procedure and insure that you are competent to practice criminal law before you start writing posts on your professional law blog about criminal law issues.

Moreover, if you're a personal injury lawyer who writes a blog post (or a series of posts) about criminal law matters, then you are putting yourself out to the public as a criminal attorney just as if you were to buy advertising on a local radio station or an advertisement in the telephone directory.  There are ethical considerations here (and disciplinary rules) that need to be considered when lawyers are blogging.

Bottom line, if you are a lawyer writing about a legal issue on a law firm blog, either have a personal professional depth in that topic via education and/or experience, or may sure to quote your law firm expert who practices in that area as part of your coverage of the topic.  Don't be what my Uncle Billy would call "a man with a hat and no cattle."  It can get you in trouble with readers, potential clients, and the disciplinary authorities.