I’ve been a freelancer for most of the past ten years, and have also edited the work of many freelancers in various editing jobs.
Here’s my advice:
First, collect all your information: clips (everything from college papers to “sample” articles that were never published to printed stories), resume, bio, information on relevant experience (paramedical training, what have you).
Identify possible featury-type areas you’d like to cover: medical issues, local arts and culture, personal profiles, business profiles (the business profiles generally bring in the most money).
Track down all the publications within a comfortable driving area — free weeklies, major dailies, wire service bureaus — and rank them by which ones are the most important to you (by pay, prestige, etc…).
If there’s more than one editor, call the publication’s switchboard and find out who is the person who deals with freelancers. Now call them.
Ask for an opportunity to come in and introduce yourself, and to bring in your clips, resume, references, etc…
At the interview (I always made time to talk to potential freelancers — you never know when you need one, and it’s nice to meet them ahead of time), explain who you are and what your background is, then ask what sorts of freelance material the editor is looking for. Encourage them to go into detail — what kinds of stories, what length, etc… If they tell you straight out that you’re not qualified to work for them, ask for referrals to other editors in the area who will work with less experienced freelancers. And DON’T FORGET — ask whether you can come back once you have more experience. Be nice, professional, and insistent. Any editor will be happy to see that you’re persistent, in fact — it’s the major job requirement for a journalist!
If the editor was positive about the idea of you writing for them, go home and come up with story ideas that were in line with what the editor wanted. Keep pitching until they like something — after all, they’ve already indicated that they want to work with you, now all you have to do is find the right topic.
Otherwise, go to the next editor at the list. Eventually, you’ll find one who’ll take your work, even if it’s just the local free paper, a church bulletin, or the library newsletter.
Once you have three clips from the this publication, mail copies to the next-better publication on the list, show that editor how much you’ve improved, and tell him that you’ll give a call soon to talk about pitching some stories.