Writers frequently introduce a topic or unfamiliar phrase, then define it, as in “The condemned rode to the gallows in a tumbrel, a two-wheeled cart.”

But that’s backward. If you give a reader the familiar information first, then the unfamiliar, she’s more likely to understand it: “The condemned rode to the gallows in a two-wheeled cart called a tumbrel.”

Here’s a more practical example: Let’s say you’re writing about one of the (many) debates among the Republican presidential candidates, and one candidate’s proposals come under attack. (Not that that would ever happen!)

“I think it’s a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. He was referring to candidate Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax proposal.

Um, what’s a catchy phrase? With no antecedent, a reader has to wait until after the quote to understand what Huntsman is talking about.

Let’s try again:

“I think it’s a catchy phrase,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, referring to candidate Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax proposal. “In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it.” Cain, a former pizza executive, has proposed replacing the federal tax code with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and 9 percent national sales tax.

That’s a bit better. A reader knows a lot sooner that “it” is the 9-9-9 program. But she still has to wait to learn what that program is. And though the pizza reference is explained, the reader may not get the joke until later as well.

Let’s try again:

“I think it’s a catchy phrase,” said Jon Huntsman, referring to Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to replace the federal tax code with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. “In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it.” Cain is a former pizza executive.

Well, better in that the identification of what “it” is and its definition are right after “it.” But worse in that the quotation is broken up by a long explanatory phrase, dampening the quote’s impact. And the pizza reference is sort of tacked on.

One last try:

Jon Huntsman managed to refer to both Herman Cain’s background as a pizza executive and Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to replace the federal tax code with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. “I think it’s a catchy phrase,” Huntsman said. “In fact, “I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it

By putting the explanations before the quote, it sets the quote up better, and sets the reader up to better understand the quote.

Just go from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and your readers will thank you.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.