Is Your Name Holding You Back?

I know my name makes me stand out. In general, I think that’s a good thing: I’ve had lots of clients choose me because I stand out in a crowd. I’ve also had more than a few clients think they were working with a man and were very surprised to find otherwise. It has occasionally bothered me — there are plenty of photos of me floating around out there, which any client doing a little due diligence is bound to come across. Over all though, I tend to get a chuckle out of the confusion and move on.

Right now, though, I’m wondering if having a name that isn’t clearly feminine has worked in my favor.

Yesterday, Copyblogger posted a piece titled, “Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants.” I almost didn’t read the post, assuming that it would be interesting but just another post about marketing that I could afford to skip. But that comment about women’s underpants wasn’t just a clever headline. James Chartrand really does wear women’s underwear — because James is a woman.

I encourage you to read the whole post, but it boils down to the fact that James discovered that she could land a lot more clients by using a male pen name.

It’s a tough truth that there are still clients out there that, without even thinking about their decisions, offer male writers better gigs and better pay. It’s not just a question of gender, either — many clients are likely to choose writers with ‘American’ names, or at least names with European roots, rather than Indian or Hispanic.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

Using a pen name is an option: James demonstrates how useful it’s been. However, there are some logistics that are worth considering before you jump into writing under another name:

  • If you’re choosing a name of the opposite gender, you may not be able to talk to your clients on the phone without a lot of explanation.
  • Signing contracts and accepting checks under another name can be tough. At the bare minimum, you’ll probably want to create a business so that you can use the business’ name for things like taking payment.
  • You may have some fall out when clients and others learn that you aren’t who they think you are.

That last one is one of the biggest concerns in my mind. A little ambiguity isn’t too bad. My clients and I tend to get a laugh out of any situation which gets me addressed as ‘Mr. Bram.’ But I’d never want my clients to even consider the idea that I was deliberately trying to give them the wrong impression about myself.

Using a pen name full-time, as James does, can be difficult, especially when you get into questions of ethics. I think that James has handled it well — she explained the situation on her own, without prompting — but if you’re considering doing something similar, think about what it will take for you to approach the idea with the same honesty. It’s not a trivial matter.

6 Comments

  1. Michael Kwan   •  

    I don’t think I’d ever use a pen name, because I want to be acknowledged for who I am and not for who you want me to be. I do wonder, though, whether I’d have an easier time getting work and/or getting higher rates if I didn’t have a Chinese surname.

  2. thursday   •     Author

    @Michael, I feel like there are a lot of different types of names that could trigger a decision on the part of a client — consciously or no. It’s a strange situation to think about, though: we’re just all very used to our names so why should they matter to anyone else?

  3. John Wang   •  

    Thursday,

    A pen definitely has it’s pros and cons. One of the cons being, if you want to be hired by a company and the whole background check fails part it could be rough. Otherwise, it’s definitely a good way to better separate yourself and make yourself better Google-able. Everyone searches for everyone on some website or search engine these days, and if you have a common name like me, it can be hard to “manage” what people find when they search for you.

    While a pen name is good, I would probably suggest a DBA (Doing business as) or just making a small company and using that. It could be more beneficial in a way.

  4. thursday   •     Author

    @John, I’m honestly not that concerned about failed background checks — in all my years of freelancing, I’ve never had a client conduct a background check beyond calling a reference or two.

    However, I think you raise a good point in suggesting using a business name, rather than using a pen name. While filing paperwork for a DBA or creating a small business may not be worth the time and expense for a part-time freelancer, it can definitely make sense if you’re freelancing full-time.

  5. John Wang   •  

    Thursday,

    Actually, the whole background check thing was more for people who are freelancing on the side or just trying to go back to Corporate (Cubicle Nation, I suppose.) Though, I do think it’s very easy to prove you are your pen name.

    My biggest reason for suggestion DBA or a small business, even if it’s a Single Owner LLC, is just for legal reasons. Mostly, precaution, but the separation of personal and business assets that can be gone after in a court of law. I’m no lawyer, but that was the consensus given to me by those who are. It’s a bit more hassle, but better for peace of mind.

    Btw, I’ve always read your articles on FreelancerSwitch, it just never occurred to me, to check your personal blog out. It’s very good. Just thought, I’d mention that.

  6. thursday   •     Author

    @John, Thanks for the clarification. I do think that it’s great for a freelancer to protect his or her assets when it comes to business. It’s true that having an LLC does offer some protection (although a DBA does not provide the same protection). Unfortunately, freelancers who are working anything less than full-time rarely seem to even have the opportunity to create any such protection.

    It’s also worth notice, on the pen name end of things, that the owners of an LLC are a matter of public record. It’s one more argument for using a business name, rather than a pen name, I think.

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