After the invention of the printing press punctuation was used lightly with three maybe four marks, and those had no clear rules from one typesetter to the other or even within the same book by the same typesetter.
All that to say readers have always had to parse writers’ meanings. Writers who obsess over those marks before they’ve barely begun writing are, in fact, doing a disservice to both themselves and readers.
Do not misunderstand. Punctuation matters. Such marks help organize material and can move a reader through the composition in a pleasing fashion.
For thousands of years before the printing press with its hot lead or movable type, handwritten originals and duplications by copyists included no punctuation leaving it up to the reader to decide when a thought begins and ends. Take one famous example: The Bible. Sixty-six books written by many writers in at least three original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Those books were translated (meaning from one original language to a second language) and versioned (meaning a translation from a translation: think King James Bible translated into English from yet another translation, this one in Latin) into just about every language that exists, all of which have their own punctuations, spellings, meanings, and so forth.
In the 1870s the King James Version of 1611 got an update of punctuation and language changes. Since then, others have taken those new versions and versioned their own.
A comma was inserted in Luke 23:43. Guess what happened? That comma has moved so that depending on the translation or version, either the thief would be in paradise with Jesus that very day or Jesus was merely telling him that day that at some point in the future the thief would be in paradise with him.
Big debates continue about this one scripture. So you see? Punctuation is powerful…and can be manipulated, hopefully only for good purposes, not evil.
But punctuation is not the end all when it comes to novel writing. Here’s why: The story must come first. A perfectly punctuated tale that is badly written is still crap and a brilliant piece can be hidden within bad punctuation. The former needs a whole rewrite. The latter only needs a good tweak.
Think of writing as a battle. Generals plan, sending soldiers to the field with orders to accomplish that plan. But as both generals and soldiers know, those plans go out the window with the first shot fired. We novelists know this. Characters, if we are being true to them, have a way of building their own lives, telling us their personal motivations, and letting their attitudes show: whether or not we agree or want it. Plots get complicated way beyond anything we’d ever imagined.
Like a general saying “Forget that the enemy is trying to kill you, do as I tell ya, soldier!”, forcing characters and plots into our simple and easy plan renders useless any punctuation we may insert because the battle is lost.
So what are you spending your time on? Figuring out your story or trying to please some God of Punctuation?