The simple truth is that you might have to start out working for free before you land your first paid freelance position. Editors often want to know that you have already established yourself as someone who is reliable and has a strong voice before taking a chance on you.
Writing your own blog on a consistent basis is a great start, and sometimes that is all the ‘proof’ needed before landing a paid gig. But if you haven’t been blogging very long, or you approach an editor that is looking for past experience, taking on a non-paying position is a perfect way to start. Look at it like an internship - an opportunity to get the experience you need to land the job that you want.
How to land non-paying contributor spots
These contributor positions are typically a little easier to find, and can give your freelance career a jump start. You’ll find available positions posted on your favorite blogs as they come up (typically posted in the content as a blog post), so make a list and check in often to see if something has become available. Here are some other things you’ll want to know about a non-paying contributor spot:
When you are not getting paid to write for a site, generally "alternative payment" is made in the form of exposure and publicity (with a link back to you in the article, and possibly a by-line as well). It’s a trade off - you do something for them, they’ll do something for you. Just always make sure you are getting something in return for your time and effort. Don't ever say yes just for the sake of doing work with nothing in return.
Don’t be afraid to say no if it doesn’t feel right. If the blog isn't a good fit for you, no matter what the reason, simply decline nicely and move on.
How to land paid contributor slots
Again, you’ll want to make a list of the blogs that you would love to write for, and check back often to see if anything is available. If nothing is turning up, don’t be afraid to shoot the editor a brief email asking if they have any contributor positions coming available in the future. If nothing is available at that time, at least you’ll be on their radar for when something does come up later. Be sure to let your blog friends know that you are actively looking for freelance positions. That way if they come across something that you didn’t see, they can let you know.
Tips for both paid and non-paid gigs
1) Form relationships: Having a relationship with an editor before you approach her about freelancing is always a good thing. If you have established some kind of rapport with editor of XYZ blog ahead of time (responding to her tweets, commenting on her blog, sending an occasional email), she will be far more likely to want to work with you. Why? Because she feels like she already knows you. People like working with people they already know, because it is easier to trust someone that you already know.
Another way to build a relationship is to say thank you. If your post gets linked to, take the time to thank that blogger. Not only is it good manners and nice, but you never know what will happen next.
2) Create great content and make a lot of it. Get your work out there and promote the heck out of it, but make sure your work is consistent. Large blogs (and brands) want to make sure they know what they will be getting. If you have a standard format for your work, this will be easier to show. Developing your own style to your writing and photography might not make you a perfect fit for everyone, but it will make you just right for someone.
Work hard and be consistent, and the rewards will follow. Your work is your portfolio - your name is out there. The better your work, the better your chances for future gigs.