The Methods of Writer and Journalist Arvind Dilawar
September 11, 2016
A Story Behind the Story
“I’m a really, really terrible bassist.”
Arvind Dilawar is a 29-year-old writer who has lived his whole life in New York City, save a year at Rutgers University. He graduated from high school in 2005, spent the year at Rutgers, and then transferred to Baruch College where he studied creative writing and journalism, minoring in history.
For Dilawar the seed was planted in high school…
“I really got interested in journalism in high school, and specifically junior, senior year because one of my friends gave me a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I had always been interested in reading in writing, but never really considered that a means to employment until I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and realized ‘Oh, you know, I like reading, I like writing, I like drugs, I like drinking. I can have all these things and have a job.’ I think that’s really what sort of launched me in that direction.”
Later I ask if swearing or talking about an affinity for drugs might have hindered his career in any way…
He says he started writing and publishing stuff online in college, at a point when he thought nobody would ever see it or his line of thinking was “I don’t give a fuck if they see this.” But, he says, “I don’t think it’s closed any doors for me, because you have to know when it’s appropriate.”
In college he also became editor of a yearly literary arts magazine, the contents of which were “more like fiction, non-fiction, narrative writing, art, poetry — stuff like that.”
Around this time he also started working for an online publication called Street Carnage, which doesn’t deal much with current events. He says this was the start of his professional writing career, starting out as an intern and working as an editor for about three years.
After Street Carnage, he was offered a job at Black Balloon Publishing, “a small publishing house in New York.”
There, he helped “find neat voices and try to amplify them with multi-media approaches.”
“For example, one of them was And Everyday Was Overcast, a photo novel. So the combination of what would be traditional narrative, but then illustrated with photographs that were not necessarily the people being discussed or even from the time being discussed, but for using photography in a fictional way.
“They had an online blog called The Airship — I was the senior editor of that. And that involved commissioning stories, editing them . . . commissioning photo work, commissioning some art. We did a lot of long form stuff. But that was nonfiction — some of it was literary criticism, some of it was more traditional journalism. Maybe feature writing would be more appropriate.”
After about two years, he was laid off from the publishing company. That was two years ago.
“At that point I figured I’d always wanted to give freelance writing a shot and sort of just took it from there — started writing for Newsweek, Guardian. Basically, places that my friends had contributed to. They would hook me up with their editors, I’d put together a couple pitches I’d think that they were interested in. And yeah, I never really looked back.”
This says a lot about Dilawar’s career and his advice for other freelancers — he almost always relies on known connections when pitching a story. He will either pitch to an editor who he has worked with previously or who is recommended by a friend for a particular story idea.
On pitching, his rule of thumb is to make sure there’s a connection, to send an email, wait three days before sending a follow up, and then wait another three days before pitching to another editor. This avoids the possibility of having to pick between interested editors for launching a story and potentially burning bridges before they’re established. Dilawar also says that, regarding networking, quality is more important than quantity — one good connection might know a variety of good editors. New York was a fortunate place for a journalist to grow up.
He also gets story ideas through connections such as editors and friends. Through the friend of an editor is how he became acquainted with comedian Noah Savage, the subject for the first piece he wrote for the website Narrative.ly…
“So Noah Savage was basically an assignment from Narrative.ly. When I first met with them, they had not launched the website yet and they were looking for their first week of coverage. And I was very interested in contributing, but did not have a story that I was ready to pitch them with. I was more like, you know, ‘What do you guys need help with?’ ‘How can I get involved?’
“Noah Savage was a friend of the founder, whose name is also Noah. He wanted to do a story about comedians and what it takes to become a comedian in New York City when you’re starting literally at the bottom. And he had this friend, Noah, who was going through the ring with that. I met up with him a couple times, we really got along, and from there it was like, ‘honestly, you know, we could do this story together.’”
For this story, he spent a good amount of time with the subject…
“I met up with him three, maybe four times. The first time, just sat down at a bar, sort of got his life story — sort of introduced ourselves since we didn’t know each other that well. The second time, I think I went out to a show with him that he was performing at. The third time, I think we were walking around on the street selling tickets and stuff. And then the fourth time, I think that was another show that I just sort of saw him do his thing at. All together those might have been somewhere between four and eight hours all together, something like that — maybe over two weeks.”
Over my phone interview with Dilawar, we also covered several of the finer points of journalism. Here are some bullet points taken from the conversation:
· Variety is good. For Dilawar, it helps him avoid disillusionment.
· Sometimes a Q&A format is good, but only if the subject is interesting. It’s also good for a “static” subject.
· A long-form feature format is useful for presenting a topic or subject in an active, “truncated” manner. “Because that’s something you can do with a feature, as well — compress a lot of information very quickly.”
· Don’t tell people you don’t care about answers in order to save time — let them talk.
· Alcohol is huge in the writing community. And writers are traditionally known somewhat as degenerates.
· Lastly (but there’s probably more useful advice from Dilawar), save left-over material and ask editors if you can use it for another story at another publication. This applies more to freelancers.