I solve the quandary by choosing a word I already know and picking out the strongest image that comes to mind. I then take that image and try to build a scene based on the definitions of the remaining words.
I am satisfied when I come back after 5 minutes and reread my sentence — if it is not apparent I am shoe-horning four words, I am happy. I also strive for a certain level of ‘flow’. My sentences are sometimes very long, and getting the punctuation correct is a bear.
I find that the most challenging part of QQ is making the sentence feel natural, without being wordy. I like to read long, descriptive sentences, but in general hate writing them. My mind works like a plucking banjo, not a violin.
At first I just wrote the kind of sentence that came naturally with the four words: four distinct ideas crammed into a single, long sentence. I now continue to do QQ because my goal is to fit them into a single, short, crisp sentence rather than a long one. It becomes a different kind of challenge. At first it was to use the words each on their own, and now it is to use them as ingredients, rather than standalone dishes. For example:
(in the beginning):
The harried mother chased her two rambunctious boys across the bistro, adjuring the elder to return the baguette he pilfered from the fulsome feast laid out on the neighboring table, but he paid no heed and busticated it happily over his brother’s head.
The stolid bear looked up from his fresh kill to watch a mischievous crow bouncing jauntily along the esker toward him, piercing the air as he went with his squawking koans.
Editor’s note 9/15/2010:
Some correspondence followed Captain Thunderbeard’s post.
One contributor felt that, of the two sentences Captain provided, the first made the meanings clearer. In the second sentence, “stolid,” “esker” and “koans” could be replaced with very different words (say “hungry,” “telephone wire,” and “comrades”) and still make sense, whereas in the first, the Quandary words seem more firmly situated; if not inextricable, at least harder to substitute. This contributor wanted to know more about how Captain weighs “the requirement that a reader unfamiliar with a word be able to make a good guess about its meaning from the way it’s used in the sentence.” “For me,” writes the contributor, “it’s dead easy to write a sentence using all the words, but very difficult to do so in a way that gives real clues about their meanings. All of us falter, if not fail, regularly at the meaning-from-context problem, so I’d really like to read a follow-up post with more thoughts about that in particular.”
Captain replied with some comments about how he’d been interpreting the word “illustrative” in QQ’s challenge statement “use all four words together in one illustrative sentence.” He had been seeking to paint a vivid picture with the words, but not necessarily to explain by example. He preferred his second sentence because he felt it evoked a “simple, uncluttered image.” He pointed out that in some cases a writer might over-suggest the meaning of word using contextual clues and thereby make the word itself seem extraneous.
Still, Captain looks to refine his approach. He follows the philosophy that “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. However, Captain plans to balance his interest in crisp sentences that convey a vivid, uncluttered image with the aim of conveying definitions – “illustrating” the words in the sense of expressing their meanings.
Aye, Captain – good luck seeking that balance, don’t be afraid of a misstep here and there, and keep the sentences coming!