Sorry — If I Had Any Advice To Give I’d Take It Myself

John Steinbeck? Harper Lee? Rod Serling? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Literary folklore asserts that John Steinbeck, the Nobel prize-winning author, was once asked to share a nugget of wisdom for aspiring authors, and he replied humorously and candidly that he did not really have any advice. In fact, if he had some good advice he would use it himself. True or untrue?

Quote Investigator: The magazine “Writer’s Digest” posed the following question to several high-profile authors and editors. The desired response was supposed to be restricted to one-sentence:

What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?

The replies were published in a cover story dated September 1961. The following three items appeared in the issue. Steinbeck’s remark was frank, but not particularly useful. Boldface added: 1

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
Harper Lee

Sorry — If I had any advice to give I’d take it myself.
John Steinbeck

The new writer should observe, listen, look . . . and then write. Nothing begets better writing than the simple process of writing.
Rod Serling

The magazine committed a gaffe in its description of Harper Lee when it credited her with writing “To Kill a Hummingbird” instead of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

In 2012 the website of “Writer’s Digest” published a series of articles that explored the archives of the long-lived periodical. The advice from Steinbeck was reprinted when most of the 1961 article was placed on the website. 2

In conclusion, in 1961 Steinbeck did state that he was unable to provide enlightening guidance to new writers.

(Great thanks to Onorio Catenacci whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1961 September, Writer’s Digest, If You Want to Be a Writer, (Advice from Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and Rod Serling), Start Page 22, Quote Page 24, F & W Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. Website: Writer’s Digest, Article title: What’s the single best piece of writing advice? Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Carl Sandburg weigh in, Article author: Zachary Petit, Date on website: April 27, 2012, Website description: Resource for beginning and established writers. (Accessed on April 19, 2016) link