I am the administrator of a Facebook group for writers. One member recently asked, "How do I become a free lance writer?" Here's my reply (slightly edited):
The term comes from medieval times, when a mercenary warrior would provide himself and his lance to a lord who would pay for his services, rather than to a lord he had a long-term relationship with.
I freelanced for dozens of magazines, newspapers and advertising agencies back in the 1970s. I had majored in journalism in college and then moved to NYC and got a job as ass't editor of a magazine. I used my contacts gained at that magazine, plus samples of what I had written, to sell work to other publications as well as ad agencies.
The specific paths may vary, but three vital ingredients are
(1) experience that generates published writing samples,
(2) knowledge of potential media clients,
(3) story ideas. (In journalism, an article is called a "story" or a "piece.")
It will probably be tough to sell your first article if you have no experience. Many writers start writing for low-paying (or even no-paying) community newspapers. If you can write very well about even dull news events, such as school board meetings, Little League or high school sports, or community bake sales, your published samples should help you to move up to more interesting assignments at better-paying media.
It's important to become familiar with publications, broadcast stations and online media that might publish your work. My first job was at a "trade" magazine that went to hi-fi dealers. My knowledge of hi-fi equipment got me work writing for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Country Music magazines. My experience there helped me make the transition to more mainstream magazines such as Esquire as well as newspapers, ad agencies and PR agencies.
- It's much easier to get freelance work if you have a specialty, or multiple specialties, hopefully with little competition.
- You should constantly be sending out "pitch letters" (which can be emails), suggesting stories to appropriate media. Even if you don't sell the pieces you suggest, once you become known to editors, they'll probably contact you when they need a story in a field you are qualified to write about.
Don't pitch an article about do-it-yourself bicycle repair to a cooking magazine or a website for funeral directors.
- While specialization makes it easier to get work, it's important to be able to write about anything. Even if you normally write about fashions or funerals, if you are first-on-scene at a train crash, particularly if it is not covered by others, try to sell the news report.
- Be aware that there are probably as many writers looking for work as there are unemployed actors and singers. The oversupply reduces the money that publications will pay, except for the top tier of writers.
Writers Market is an excellent directory of possible buyers of your words and should be on your shelf. In addition to its directory function, it has lots of helpful advice on the business of writing.